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Costly Marine, Hard Choices


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E. Melanie Gifford, Lisha Deming Glinsman, Costly Marine, Hard Choices , National Gallery of Art, (accessed Feb 27, 2021).


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detail, Johanes Vermeer, The Geographer

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.

It is not always clear how these artists 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.

High life Dutch genre painting, those exploring rep shift to more modern style of painting that occurred around 1650, and this immediately brings up the question how this sublime mode of painting in just 20-25 years.  If Genre paintings as a category shows everyday life, these are idealized scenes, painted by those who wanted to appeal to a particular clientele.

Technical study used technical examintations to see how the manner of painting affected:

Collective Style: Which painting practices shared throughout this group of artists contribute to high-life style?

Individual Artistic Style: how did each artist create distinctive visual qualities that made their paintings stand out?

Quoting Other Artists’ Styles: What can we learn about 17th century attitudes to artistic style?


detail, Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer

We examined 105 paintings by 12 artists, with 2 exam methods: Magnification and X-ray Fluorescence Analysis, or XRF. With magnification, you can see the painting sequence [from essay]. For example, in Vermeer’s The Geographer [fig. 1], from the brown painted sketch to these wonderful dotted highlights.  Even higher magnification we can visualize the pigments, deep blue of ultramarine and frosty yellow from lead tin yellow (see 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. Similarly, some artists painted the borders between forms with precision, creating a sharply focused effect. 


XRF of paint in Gerard ter Borch, The Suitor's Visit

XRF analysis complemented the magnified examination with information on the painters’ materials. This method of examination 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. and it identifies the elements present in the painting The Suitor’s Visit by Gerard ter Borch  [fig. 2]   of the lute player’s blue bodice.  XRF show peaks in the spectrum to confirm that shows that aluminum, silica and potassium.  This elemental profile consistent with ultramarine, a costly pigment made from lapis lazuli & a semi-precious stone. XRF study identified even traces of the pigment, such as in Metsu’s The Intruder [fig. 3].  

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  E. Melanie Gifford, Lisha Deming Glinsman

  Oct 19, 2017