Secrets of the process: Revelations in Paintings
A great painting is a multi-layered thing, rich in subtext and messages that may be technical or stylistic, whimsical or idealistic, literal or metaphorical. Sometimes these elements can be seen either subtly or directly, as in the depiction of a dog with an apparent extra ear, by Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens, while at other times they only become clear through technical research and scholarly connoisseurship. Sometimes seeing what lies beneath the surface can allow insight into the artist’s meaning or method.
Conservators at the National Gallery of Canada use technology to see exactly this, and at times the results are highly significant. In 2012, by the use of X-radiography, the 1545 portrait of nobleman Daniele Barbaro was established as an original by Titian. Thought to have been painted by the Venetian master when the Gallery purchased it in 1928, scholarly opinion turned and the portrait was relegated to being a workshop copy of a painting in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid. The X-radiographs, however, revealed how the artist had made subtle but significant changes to the Ottawa painting, including to the clothing and the sitter's nose, and that these changes do not exist in the Prado’s version. The results were conclusive: Titian would not have made these changes if he had been painting a copy, so the Gallery's painting was in fact not from the workshop.
In 2013–14 the Gallery's first Masterpiece in Focus exhibition included the findings of research centered around a Christ purchased as by Peter Paul Rubens. Doubts arose however among scholars, but it was technical work as preparation for the focus exhibition which clarified the painting’s status. It was made by somebody in Rubens’ workshop, copied by sight from an autograph painting as Rubens painted, or more accurately, as he took breaks from painting, The Rubens is in the Schottenstift Museum in Vienna. Published in the National Gallery of Canada Review, the research included, among other methods, the use of dendrochronology, x-radiography, infrared reflectography, but most importantly in this case – simple close looking.
Gallery visitors, however, don’t always need technology to see such changes. In Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s 1730 painting Allegory of the Arts, a woman sits before an easel and paints. If you spend time with the painting and look hard – and its worth it – you will get the sense that there is something more going on. Shifts and strange softnesses hint at an artist evolving an idea, making up his mind, yet still showing us a glimpse of the ghost of what she had been. It is fitting that a portrait of an artist at work includes evidence of the real artist’s conceptual process. It brings the viewer inside the painting, and somehow closer to it. An upcoming article in this Magazine will be looking at this painting in greater depth.
Only steps away from the Crespi is Jacob Jordaens' As The Old Sing, So The Young Pipe with its three-eared dog, which is the most plainly visible change of all, and the most charming. The title is a proverbial reminder that adults must set good examples around impressionable children, a duty that the adults do not appear to be fulfilling. Created around 1640, this masterpiece is a rollicking scene, with three generations of a family enjoying a fine feast and singalong — a corpulent man, a golden-locked youngster and a chubby baby , a grandmother and mother singing from a song sheet, and a man piping while a Fool holds up a small cage with songbirds inside. The table is thick with steins and platters, and emerging from beneath the table, with its tongue drawn by the food, is a floppy-eared, golden dog.
The painting was a star of the Gallery’s Jacob Jordaens exhibition in 1968 and, when acquired the following year, it went on a highly popular tour of thirteen cities across Canada. Based on a Flemish proverb, Jordaens painted the scene many times and with many variations. In some, the table is not so conspicuously bountiful, or not all the adults are singing, or the whole thing is less comedic. Details, significant or not, change from one canvas to the next, or even within one canvas, such as the dog’s ear in the Gallery’s painting. Lean in for a closer look and the dog seems to have three ears – one right, one left and a third leftover from when Jordaens had the dog’s head in a different position. In digital terms such revelations would be called "Easter eggs", tiny bits of code that, once encountered, change the overall experience in some small way, usually to the delight of the discoverer.
Whatever Jordaens' thinking (and that of the assistants in his workshop) almost 400 years ago, that extra ear that shouldn’t be there at all, allows the viewer to see the painting — and by extension all paintings — not as a static thing but as a process, as an evolution, as the result of many decisions made by the artist along the way. To see inside a painting in such a way is to see inside the mind of the artist who worked, perhaps, hundreds of years ago.
The works are on view in the European Galleries, C203, C205a, C206 and C207, of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.