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Members' Research Report Archive

Wooden Supports in Seventeenth-Century Flemish Paintings in the Museo del Prado: Dating and Panel Manufacturing Technology  

Maite Jover de Celis, Museo Nacional del Prado
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 15–August 15, 2014


Frans Snyders, Fruit Bowl, oil on panel, c. 1619, detail of the back of the panel showing cracks and a wide area of sapwood rings near the horizontal joint in the upper portion, as well as the panel maker Michael Claessens’s cloverleaf mark (indicated by the black arrow). Museo Nacional del Prado;  author photograph

The study of materials and techniques in art is a discipline of increasing interest to art history and conservation. Researchers have gradually adapted techniques of analysis and examination developed in other scientific fields to the study of works of art, optimizing protocols and working methods to deal with unique and exceptionally valuable artifacts. One of the many fields in which scientific analysis has proved very useful is the study of supports, whether wood, canvas, paper, metal, stone, ceramic, or any of the other materials used by artists throughout the centuries. Identification of the material used and its origin assists us in associating a work with the historical and geographical environment where it may have originated. The Flemish paintings collection of the Museo del Prado includes a large number of paintings on wooden supports, several of which are panels by Flemish painters active in Antwerp in the first half of the seventeenth century. Wood was one of the preferred materials in this school for the construction of painting supports, which were manufactured according to a rigorous procedure by professional specialists.

Antwerp panel makers were members of the Guild of Saint Luke, as were other professionals whose work related to the production of art. Guild regulations were quite explicit regarding panel manufacture, establishing mandatory practices in an attempt to guarantee the quality of the final product. For instance, regulations published in 1617 compelled panel makers to mark finished panels with their personal brands. Guild inspectors then checked the quality of the product, adding the mark of the Antwerp coat of arms (two hands and a castle) on the back of the panel as a control brand. The guild statutes also standardized sizes and formats and specified prices that panel makers could ask for these.


Frans Snyders, Fruit Bowl, oil on panel, c. 1619. Museo Nacional del Prado; author photograph

Starting in 2009 I surveyed a group of panels attributed to different artists with a focus on wood technology: that is, species and quality of the wood, provenance of the timber, characteristics of manufacture, and most probable date of use according to dendrochronological analysis, in addition to other general information. Although more panels will be surveyed throughout next year, at present the amount of information generated is sufficient to start the evaluation of results. My two months’ stay at CASVA provided an important opportunity to review and organize all this information and start drawing preliminary conclusions.

The group of paintings I studied shows homogeneous characteristics related to the species of wood. Oak was the species most commonly used in northern European works because of its abundance, its appropriateness for carving and general woodworking, and its relative resistance to insect damage. Only a few examples of other woods were found in the Prado collection. Regarding provenance, it was possible to establish two main places of origin: the oak was either local or was imported from the Baltic region, probably depending on the availability of high-quality raw material in Antwerp throughout the period under consideration. Differences in the sawing pattern (radial, semiradial, tangential) and wood density, both of which can significantly affect the future conservation of the panel, were also detected.

Several panel makers’ marks were found on the backs of the panels, sometimes accompanied by the Saint Luke quality control brand. In these cases, comparison of the panel maker’s and the painter’s life dates with dendrochronological results will improve the chronological accuracy of current attributions.

Furthermore, the study of panel characteristics allows interesting comparisons between the craftsmen’s actual practices and the theoretically mandatory standards of quality control exercised by the guild inspectors. Surprisingly, my research identified some examples of approved (marked) panels showing wood defects; for instance, the outer, most perishable wood of the tree (called sapwood), which should have been removed before the panel was made, is sometimes still partially present in the board’s edge, contradicting the regulations of the guild.

I spent the first half of the fellowship period organizing and analyzing data, after which I carried out a thorough bibliographical review related to general historical aspects of seventeenth-century Antwerp’s artistic culture and workshop organization and to documentation of the Guild of Saint Luke. The National Gallery’s excellent library and its staff greatly facilitated my work. In addition, the library’s interlibrary loan service obtained publications related to other subjects, such as forestry science and archaeometry.