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Collective Style and Personal Manner
Materials and Techniques of High-Life Genre Painting

 
 

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E. Melanie Gifford, Lisha Deming Glinsman, Collective Style and Personal Manner Materials and Techniques of High-Life Genre Painting , National Gallery of Art, https://purl.org/nga/documents/literature/essays/collective-style-and-personal-manner (accessed Mar 4, 2021).

 

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Figures


Comparable Figure
[fig. 1] Pieter de Hooch, A Woman Delousing a Child’s Hair, 1658–1660, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
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Comparable Figure
[fig. 2] Aelbert Cuyp, Landscape with Horse Trainers, about 1655 (or 1660), oil on canvas, The Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1960.2
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Paintings depicting the leisure of the highest echelons of society came about through an extraordinary process of artistic exchange. Artists regularly quoted aspects of each other’s compositions, transforming these allusions into novel creations. It seems likely that well-informed contemporary viewers recognized their borrowings and appreciated their innovations. Such art lovers must also have valued the remarkably fine brushwork and costly painting materials. Few contemporary written sources documenting artists’ and connoisseurs’ responses have survived, however. This essay, based on technical study of the paintings themselves, explores seventeenth-century views of artistic style in high-life genre painting.

The type of paintings included in this exhibition did not derive from one dominant personality; rather, they coalesced among artists who converged from a range of other specialties.[1] It is not always clear how they knew of each other’s work. They lived in different cities and evidence of personal contact is sparse. Competition for an audience of wealthy art lovers may have brought the artists into contact with works by their peers, even when they did not meet in person. Educated amateurs visited notable collections and artists must have done so as well. Many of the techniques they used would have been apparent to the trained eyes of painters. This study offers evidence that as artists studied their competitors’ innovations they were spurred to new levels of wit and technical prowess.

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Photo micrograph of Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, showing wet-into-wet painting

Technical studies often examine one work of art or paintings by a single artist. This approach allows in-depth analysis, but without comparative research it is difficult to distinguish the characteristics of individual artists from more general practices.2 This study takes a different approach, considering works by twelve of the principal high-life painters in one of the most wide-ranging technical investigations to date. In an ambitious travel program a representative sample of paintings by each artist was examined. Using microscopic examination and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis, we gathered consistent observations  for no fewer than 105 paintings in twenty-six institutions.3 Direct comparisons of these observations allowed us to explore both artistic strategies used by all these painters and practices specific to individuals.

A small area in Johannes Vermeer’s Milkmaid [fig. 1] illustrates the methodology of the present study. Magnified examination of paint surfaces reveals how artists built up their images.Though these works are highly finished, magnification confirms that the painters used procedures common to many seventeenth-century artists: a brown-black painted sketch laid out the composition, then an underpaint in muted tones prepared the final colors, and the final paint worked up the composition in detail. Magnification also clarifies the order in which paints were applied and the visual consequences of the artist’s processes. Some artists waited for one color to dry before applying details, which made them stand out more crisply. Others, including Vermeer, often painted wet-into-wet (see detail at left). Similarly, some artists painted the borders between forms with precision, creating a sharply focused effect. In The Milkmaid, however, Vermeer used an interwoven series of overlaps to create his characteristically soft contours. 

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XRF spectrum of the yellow bodice in Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, documenting the use of lead-tin yellow and yellow lake

XRF analysis complemented the magnified examination with information on the painters’ materials. Many analytical techniques give detailed information but require microscopic samples; XRF identifies the chemical elements present without removing any material from the paint layer. These elements allow us to infer the pigments artists chose to color their paintings as well as their pigment mixtures.5 An XRF spectrum of the yellow bodice of The Milkmaid reveals peaks for lead, tin and calcium, which indicate that Vermeer used both lead-tin yellow and a yellow lake pigment (typically made of calcium carbonate particles colored by a yellow dye) (see spectrum at left).6

In order to manage the mass of information derived from the examinations, a database of the thirty most distinctive painting practices and all pigments identified was developed; trends among the artists studied were evaluated using data visualization software.7 At the same time, each painting was considered individually in the context of these trends. Interpretation of the technical examinations was guided by three questions that also served to structure this essay: first, are certain features typical of (most) high-life genre paintings? Second, do other traits appear only in works by specific painters, and, if so, were these motivated by economic factors or by aesthetic goals? Finally, given the limited written documents by seventeenth-century painters addressing artistic style, can technical evidence shed light on how these artists evaluated each other’s styles?

The works of art studied share characteristics that set them apart from the majority of Dutch paintings. Not only do they depict similar costly furnishings, elegant costumes and leisure activities, they also have two specific visual qualities in common: smooth surfaces with fine detail and unusually subtle modulations of color. This study explores how painters created these visual qualities. Although the artists were trained in standard Dutch painting practices and had access to the same art supplies as their contemporaries, a specific subset of these defined their style. To create high-end genre paintings that would attract the attention of important collectors an artist needed to employ most of these techniques and materials, or at least to approximate them to a convincing degree. 

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Detail of Gerrit Dou, Scholar Interrupted at his Writing, c.1634, oil on panel, The Leiden Collection, New York

The works of art studied share characteristics that set them apart from the majority of Dutch paintings. Not only do they depict similar costly furnishings, elegant costumes and leisure activities, they also have two specific visual qualities in common: smooth surfaces with fine detail and unusually subtle modulations of color. This study explores how painters created these visual qualities. Although the artists were trained in standard Dutch painting practices and had access to the same art supplies as their contemporaries, a specific subset of these defined their style. To create high-end genre paintings that would attract the attention of important collectors an artist needed to employ most of these techniques and materials, or at least to approximate them to a convincing degree. 

The frequent use of the first defining trait, fine-scaled brushwork, reflects an evolution in taste found in Dutch writings on art from the late seventeenth century into the early eighteenth century. Samuel van Hoogstraten’s early experience in Rembrandt’s workshop shaped his appreciation of rough brushwork – he disparaged fine work as ‘finicky’ – but by the third quarter of the century the general preference was aligned with Gerard de Lairesse’s evaluation of rough brushwork as mere daubing.8 International admiration for Gerrit Dou’s minutely detailed depictions, seen as early as 1635 in Scholar Interrupted at his Writing (see detail at left of [fig. 2] ) positioned him as a decisive role model. Fine-scaled handling became the standard for success not only for Dou’s students and painters associated with Leiden, including Frans van Mieris and Gabriel Metsu, but for virtually all high-life painters. 

In order to achieve polished surfaces, painters also used a number of other techniques. Often, but not universally, they used very finely ground pigments. Most brushed their paint smoothly and, in addition, some artists emphasized this quality by dragging a dry blending brush across still-wet paint. Most artists painted slowly: at least some of them must routinely have worked on several paintings concurrently.9 Rather than painting large areas wet-into-wet they resumed work only after the paint from their previous session had dried. This gave the whole painting a crisp focus; the contours and details retained sharp edges, rather than blurring into wet paint. Some artists painted more rapidly, but approximated this effect by adding fine black shadows along the contours of forms in the final stage. These black lines throw forms into relief and efficiently create a sharply focused effect. 

Over time, painters progressively exaggerated this sharp focus. Eglon van der Neer, whose frequent travel from Rotterdam to visit Van Mieris in Leiden reflected his admiration for fine handling, epitomized this development with an opaque, hard-edged depiction of glossy surfaces. In Woman Washing her Hands (detail at left, figure 3), painted in 1675, he contrasted smoothly blended flesh tones with the glittering silver ewer and basin, which  he rendered in high-contrast touches of black and white.

The second trait defining high-life genre painting was the range of pigments chosen to achieve delicate modulations of color. These artists seemed to agree that they needed as diverse a palette as possible, and frequently mixed their pigments to create increments of tone rather than primary colors.10 They used both opaque and transparent pigments: lead-tin yellow and yellow lake, vermilion and red lake, opaque greens made from blue-yellow mixtures and transparent copper-green glazes, and often two, or even three, different black pigments. Similarly, most of these painters used two or three blue pigments in the same painting: usually ultramarine (derived from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli), but also the dyestuff indigo, smalt (a lower-cost pigment made from blue glass) or verditer (the inexpensive manufactured equivalent of azurite).11

Several of the pigments these artists used were particularly costly. One is a deep-toned red lake pigment; previous technical research established that this can be distinguished from other red lakes by higher potassium levels seen in XRF analysis (probably a result of the specific pigment recipe used).12 This richly colored pigment was most likely based on cochineal dye and was probably more expensive than ordinary red lakes.13 Although not all these painters used a high-potassium red lake, it was identified in about half the works analyzed, an indication of the value placed on high-quality materials. 

By far the most expensive pigment available was ultramarine blue. Although one ounce cost up to one-tenth of a contemporary craftsperson’s annual income, these artists used the pigment more consistently than any other blue.14 Moreover, ultramarine was not only used for vivid blues, but was mixed with yellow lake or lead-tin yellow to make green. It sometimes even served as an underpaint below a copper-green glaze, and minute amounts of finely ground ultramarine (probably the product known as ultramarine ash) were used to make white paint still whiter.15 Such uses of a precious material would seem profligate if cost were the only consideration. Other blue pigments, however, could not match the deep, intense color of ultramarine.

There was clearly a consensus among high-life genre painters – and presumably their patrons – that this beautiful blue was particularly suitable for elegant subjects. Ultramarine seemed to have explicit rich associations for Jan Steen, who routinely used smalt or azurite as the blue pigment in his typical low-life subjects.16 For his forays into high-life,  however, Steen used ultramarine.17 Intriguingly, in these same paintings he also replaced a standard red lake with the high-potassium version, suggesting that he saw this too as a more refined alternative.18

  E. Melanie Gifford, Lisha Deming Glinsman

  1. Gerard ter Borch, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob Ochtervelt and Frans van Mieris all began their careers painting other subjects: portraits, landscape, history paintings or 'low-life' genre scenes. Some established painters, among them Gerrit Dou, Jan Steen and Cornelis de Man, represented high-life subjects later in their careers, but not exclusively. Only Caspar Netscher, who trained with Ter Borch in the mid-1650s, when that artists first explored elegant subjects, and Eglon van der Neer, who retruned from France as the fashion for high-life genre scenes bega, focused on such themes from the start of their careers.