This volume brings together the papers presented at the thirteenth colloquium, held at Bruges in September of 1999, dedicated to the investigation of underdrawings and technology in paintings. Edited by Roger Van Schoute and Hélène Verougstraete, who have been the motivating and organizing forces behind this ongoing colloquium since its inception in November of 1975, the essays are united under the topic of ‘Procédés. Méthodologie. Applications,’ which formed the theme of the conference. The 23 contributions, by 32 authors, are divided almost evenly between English and French, but span broadly across time – from about 1400 to 1600, with one essay even venturing into the contemporary field; across European geography – from north to south, though the majority of papers focus on the Netherlands; and across method, to which most of the remarks will be addressed here. Given the dramatically different ways the volume’s authors apply and define technological investigation, it seems most productive to focus on methodology.
A bibliography compiled by Anne Dubois at the end of La Peinture et le Laboratoire indicates just how common the technical investigation of paintings has become. Dubois cites 92 separate articles or books, published between 1998 and 2000, which illustrate at least one infrared, ultraviolet or radiographic image. It should be noted, though, that 24 of these articles were published together in 1999 in the volume of papers delivered at the previous colloquium on Le dessin sous-jacent et la technologie dans la peinture (Leuven, 1999). Many of the other 68 citations are drawn from museum bulletins or catalogues, in which images of underdrawings have frequently appeared over the past two decades. The bibliography clearly shows that technical investigation of paintings is still not often integrated into non-museum publications. It is to Van Schoute and Verougstraete, then, that we owe a serious debt of gratitude for continuing to make available the newest research in the field in a single, relatively inexpensive volume. At the same time, the approach demonstrated in a number of the papers reflects, I believe, why such research still has relatively limited appeal to the general art historical audience; while other papers suggest how broad the appeal of technical investigation can be when applied expansively and with a generalist’s scope.
By way of illustration, several articles in La Peinture et le Laboratoireoffer focused appraisals of the technique of one or two northern Renaissance paintings. Among these are: an analysis by Ana Sánchez-Lassa de los Santos and Maite Rodríguez Torres of a Pietà at the Foot of the Cross by Ambrosius Benson in the Museo de Bellas Artes at Bilbao; an investigation by Anne Dubois of the underdrawing of Albrecht Bouts’s Assumption of the Virgin Triptych in the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; and an analysis by Pilar Silva Maroto of the underdrawing of the Virgin of Louvain and Bernard van Orley’s Holy Family, both in the Prado at Madrid. These articles share a similarly focused approach, using technical tools (i.e. infrared reflectography, radiography, paint analysis, dendrochronology) to address issues having to do with the technique, attribution or dating of specific paintings. While indispensable for acquiring a better understanding of the technique of a certain artist – as in the case of Benson and Bouts, or for situating a painting within a certain group – as in the case of the Virgin of Louvain, the articles do not move beyond these limited goals. In slightly broader fashion, Arie Wallert and Martin Bijl use their study of a pair of diptych panels in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, attributed to the Leiden School c.1515, to make conclusions about art production in general. They employ a range of technical analyses to evaluate and characterize the working methods used to produce the panels, which are convincingly linked to the expanding and loosening early sixteenth-century art market.
The willingness to use technical investigation to answer – or at least raise – expansive questions yields rich dividends in certain essays in the volume. One example is Stephanie Buck’s article on “Comparing Drawings and Underdrawings: The Possibilities and Limitations of a Method.” It discusses several key drawings in Berlin’s Kupferstichkabinett and their possible relationship to underdrawings – not as an end in itself but as the basis for investigating the applicability and effectiveness of this method. By considering the implications of technical investigation beyond the immediate results they produce, Buck both draws out the inherent importance of the drawings and offers insight on how questions might best be posed and answered in other cases.
Worth noting, as well, are studies on two important early Netherlandish paintings. The Renders Madonna (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai), attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, is the subject of three articles: Serge Le Bailly de Tilleghem reviews the history of the panel; Hélène Verougstraete and Roger Van Schoute report on the painting’s condition and restoration; and Jacqueline Couvert analyzes the work’s pigments using microfluorescence. Meanwhile, Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s Holy Kinship (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) is the focus of an article by Gwen Tauber and Arie Wallert, who secure the attribution of the painting and offer interesting analysis of the work in relation to contemporary technical sources and practice. Though still somewhat dry reading for the non-specialist, or non-’techie,’ this article does reflect what seems to be a trend toward expanding the scope of technical studies. It is a trend that all broad-minded curators, conservators, scientists and art historians should nurture and encourage.