Northern Europe

An Early Insight into Art Materials by Jeannine Cook

Happenstance has just given me a lovely gift of information. I was reading a wonderful biography by the late famed British historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, on the 17th century Huguenot physician, Theodore de Mayerne.  Brilliantly intelligent and successful, de Mayerne was first physician to King Henri IV of France, then attended James I of England and his successor, Charles I. 

Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, to give him his full name, was bornin Geneva of French parents in 1573 and lived until 1654/55, ending his days in England.  This is a portrait thought to be done of him in London by Peter Paul Rubens about 1630.

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne,  Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1630.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1630.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

De Mayerne was a multi-faceted scientist, in essence, for his interests and knowledge stretched far beyond the practise of medicine.  Chemist, Hermeticist, experimenter – on one side and on the other, a skilled linguist and writer, high-level diplomat and spy for his Royal employers, as well as deeply knowledgeable expert in art and art materials and practices.  In  short, a true Renaissance man. In 1620, he began with a flourish a new treatise entitled Pictoria, Sculptoria, et quae subalternarum artiumIn the many folios, he records observations, derived from reading in part but more from conversations with artists  and craftsmen, about their techniques, technical descriptions of materials used, sources of these materials and their chemical characteristics.

The hand-written title page of the Mayerne manuscript, 'Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium', England (London), 1620-1646,

The hand-written title page of the Mayerne manuscript, 'Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium',
England (London), 1620-1646,

 

Being a very prominent member of three Royal courts, he had the opportunity to meet a wide selection of artists and craftsmen.  He was ever curious and discussed with them different approaches to oil painting, mixing and preparing pigments, the best oils to use, surface preparation, conservation of art, the art of enamelling, watercolour and miniature painting and all manner of other information.  His friendships with Rubens, with Van Dyck, Orazio and his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, miniaturists Jean Petitot and John Hoskins and others were fruitful in the detailing of art technology in his folio notes.

Mayerne’s notes on the mixing of colours, taken from Peter Paul Rubens while sitting for his portrait

Mayerne’s notes on the mixing of colours, taken from Peter Paul Rubens while sitting for his portrait

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne,  oil and black chalk, with grey wash, c. 1631, Peter Paul Rubens.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

Dr. Theodore de Mayerne, oil and black chalk, with grey wash, c. 1631, Peter Paul Rubens.  Image courtesy of the British Museum

 Mayerne’s notes on oil, taken from Anthony van Dyck,

 Mayerne’s notes on oil, taken from Anthony van Dyck,

De Mayerne continued with this art treatise for a number of years with the last entries in the 170 folios in 1646.  

Folios 5 & 9O, Theodore de Mayerne,  Pictoria, Sculptoria...

Folios 5 & 9O, Theodore de Mayerne, Pictoria, Sculptoria...

After his death, the document ended up eventually in the British Library, under the filing, Sloane MS 2052.  From the time of Horace Walpole onwards, it has been considered an indispensable source of information on Dutch and Flemish painting in the Baroque era, allowing later scholars to learn of Northern European diverse art practices. Today, scientists still use De Mayerne's work as a vital source of information for the 17th century, on a par with Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell' Arte for the early 15th century.  Manufacturers of Old Master materials still use De Mayerne's recipes - for  amber resin varnish, for example.  Countless art restorers, in the Prado Museum, the Getty and elsewhere, apparently refer to De Mayerne's careful records about art materials and contemporary techniques.

The more I read, the more I realise there is so much more to learn about.  I started reading Hugh Trevor Roper's wonderful Europe's Physician.  The various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne to learn about an early, prominent physician. I ended up learning about a meticulous chronicler of 17th century art and its practice. What a delicious bonus! 

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.