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Upon Closer Inspection

A very notable recent acquisition just went up in the museum in the past few weeks: Ludovico Carracci’s Vision of Saint Francis (c. 1602). The painting is currently on view in gallery 212A as the centerpiece of a mini-exhibition of work by members of the Carracci family. Now, I’m just a humble copyright lawyer, with no formal art history education, so it amazes me that the museum lets me write anything about art, not to mention 17th-century Italian art. But, upon seeing the painting, there were a couple of things that piqued my interest and inspired me to write about it.

First, from the detail and monumental nature of the subject and composition--which I had previously seen only as a jpeg--I had imagined the painting to be on the scale of the larger works in nearby gallery 211. In fact, the painting checks in at a relatively small 14 5/8 x 11 1/4 inches. There’s an adage for that.

I was also struck by the smoooooth and luminous surface of the oil on copper painting. The smooth, seamless copper surface made me think of Salvador Dali's Mae West's Face which may be used as a Surrealist Apartment, which is stored horizontally to prevent the paint from very slowly and imperceptibly sliding down the surface of the slick magazine page on which it is painted. Excited by the possibility of writing a blog post titled “Slip n’ Slide,” I contacted a curator to find out if there were similar conservation concerns with this oil on copper painting. Here is the fascinating response I received from Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture before 1750.

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In this instance, there is no risk of paint sliding down the copper surface. Coppers first appear as a surface for painting in the second half of the 16th century, probably around 1560. Though scholars disagree, it would seem that the support originated in Florence and then spread to the rest of Europe where it was very popular through the 18th century. The wonderful thing about these early coppers is that they are either in pristine condition or absolutely terribly condition. Or, another way to put it: the paint either adheres absolutely to the copper surface or it does not. Part of what makes these copper pictures so precious is their smooth and flawless surface. We get a much better sense of the actual colors used by an artist than in pictures of oil on canvas, where the color often recedes into the ground and the weave of the canvas. In other words, I often feel that works on copper bring us closer to the moment of creation than other media. Also, the surface preparations of coppers appear to have varied. Here, the ground appears to be a grayish yellow. It seems that the artist Guido Reni often had his copper surfaces prepared with a silver alloy before painting them, adding to the precious quality of the work. More research on this topic needs to be done in order to assess the full range of ground preparations for coppers.

It is also interesting to consider the relationship of copper paintings to copper plates used for engraving and then prints. One imagines that the readily available material made this new medium possible. One should also consider whether the birth of the Wunderkammer (Room of Wonder, meaning a cabinet of curiosities) lead to the development of this medium. This was a small and precious object that could be collected and marveled at along with precious stones and artifacts from the "New World."

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This post is a good example of how a lawyer without an art degree can write about art with the help of lengthy blockquotes, but Eve’s response is great example of how much interesting information is often readily available if you take a moment to look at a work and ask a silly question. Have you ever been surprised by what you learned about an artwork upon closer inspection?

Image credit: Ludovico Carracci. The Vision of Saint Francis, c. 1602. Lacy Armour Fund.