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Beneath the brushstrokes

Go behind the scenes at the Gallery - explore the investigative work and technical examinations of the paintings with the Scientific and Conservation teams.

More from Beneath the brushstrokes (10 videos)

  • Jill Dunkerton: Titian is an artist who, in his later career, spent a very long time on his paintings. At least, they were in his studio for a very long time. In his early paintings, we don’t know how fast he was. I think the actual process of laying on the paint wasn’t necessarily slow, but because he made all these alterations and he seems always to have made them on top of dry paint – he didn’t like working with a lot of wet painting – they must have been sitting around for quite a time while he was allowing the paint to dry.

    Palma Giovane: He sketched his pictures with bold strokes made with brushes laden with colours. He then used to turn the painting to the wall and leave it there, sometimes for several months without looking at it. When taking the picture up again, he would examine it with the utmost rigour, as if it were his mortal enemy, and then set about correcting it.

    Jill Dunkerton: If, in an X-ray, you see a lot of white colour, it could just mean that he’s painted something very, very solid and dense, for example, a white drapery. So, there’s lots of white, but on the whole, where you do have an alteration, you tend to see extra thicknesses of white, and they can jump out at you as being very obviously an area where changes have happened.

    In the case of the painting of the head of the Pharisee, everything seems to have come right straight away. So, as a result, in the X-ray it’s a very, very dark, shadowy shape. That’s because there is very little lead white in the paint. Now of course, this is a figure in shadow, and so he’s not going to have as much lead white. His complexion isn’t going to be as fair. By contrast, the head of Christ is this extraordinary mask of white because there is so much lead white as a result of the alterations. Originally, Christ seems to have been painted with his head more inclined, tilted towards the Pharisee, rather as if he is listening to him. Perhaps a more human way, but Titian decided that he wanted to make his Christ more imposing, and so he shifts the head to its present upright position. That’s the back of the present head that we see there.

    Close examination

    Restorer Jill Dunkerton delves into 'The Tribute Money'

    About the video:

     

    Find out about Titian's techniques, his careful planning, and his alterations and deliberations. National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton explains how X-rays can reveal the artist's working practice. Featuring Titian's painting 'The Tribute Money'.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'

     

    Find out more about Titian, The Tribute Money, about 1560-8 (perhaps begun in the 1540s)

    About the video:

     

    Find out about Titian's techniques, his careful planning, and his alterations and deliberations. National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton explains how X-rays can reveal the artist's working practice. Featuring Titian's painting 'The Tribute Money'.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'

     

    Find out more about Titian, The Tribute Money, about 1560-8 (perhaps begun in the 1540s)

    Read More
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    Close examination

    Restorer Jill Dunkerton delves into 'The Tribute Money'

    Movie
  • John Lessore: In the whole history of art, Titian is my favourite painter and in the National Gallery, this Titian of Diana and Actaeon is my favourite painting. It used to be the Bacchus and Ariadne, but this one has supplanted it. Actaeon quite unwittingly stumbled across Diana bathing in the nude and saw her.

    Lizzy McInnerny: Diana dashed some water into the face of the intruder, saying, now go and tell, if you can, that you have seen Diana naked. The hero fled. He could not but admire his own speed, but when he saw his horns in the water, he groaned and tears flowed down the face which had taken the place of his own. When he hesitated, the dogs saw him. He fled and they followed. He longed to cry out, but the words didn’t come. Presently, one fastened on his back. Another seized his shoulder. They were all around him, rending and tearing. It was not until they had torn his life out that the anger of Diana was satisfied.

    John Lessore: In this painting, you see he has just started, he’s still a man except for his head, but that’s enough for the dogs. They’re already beginning to tear him to bits. He is no longer their master. He is now their victim.

    Jill Dunkerton: The X-ray of 'The Death of Actaeon' shows the most extraordinary number of changes. Sometimes you can make out one of the hounds that we still see in the final painting, for example, that head there, but if you look, there are many more hounds in the X-ray than there are in the painting itself.

    There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement about whether a painting like 'The Death of Actaeon' is actually finished. I personally think that at this late stage of his career, Titian himself didn’t necessarily know when pictures were finished. It isn’t lacking any of the final glazes, any of the systematic build-up of colour that you get with earlier pictures and, indeed, with Titian’s earlier pictures, because that was no longer part of his painting process. He is now ranging over the whole surface of the picture. One moment, he is using a glaze; the next moment, he is using an opaque colour. In a sense, it’s unfinished because Titian probably never lived to decide the point at which it was going to be finished, but it’s not unfinished to me in a technical sense. It’s not an incomplete picture and to me it works completely as an image.

    John Lessore: Nobody had ever painted in such an abstract, plastic way in which the emotion he is conveying is not conveyed by narrative so much as by shape and movement and colour. What he was doing was incredibly deliberate and refined. It’s just that the handling is so powerful that one gets the impression that the paint is slapped on any old how, which it’s not. It’s certainly not. This is a very late Titian. He must have started it when he was about 70, but gone on with it when he was in his middle 80s. The 10 or 15 years between starting it and finishing it... “finishing” in inverted commas because theoretically it is not finished, but I’m not quite sure that that’s really what Titian felt about it. I think that if he’d wanted to do any more, he would have.

    Paintings decoded

    Artist John Lessore and Restorer Jill Dunkerton: 'The Death of Actaeon'

    About the video:

     

    Finished or unfinished? National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton studies the X-rays of Titian's 'The Death of Actaeon' to reveal the artist's indecision in painting this masterpiece, while the artist John Lessore explores the theme of his favourite painting in the collection. With actress Lizzy McInnerny performing a dramatic narration of an extract from Ovid's poem 'Metamorphosis'.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'

     

    Find out more about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

     

    Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

    About the video:

     

    Finished or unfinished? National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton studies the X-rays of Titian's 'The Death of Actaeon' to reveal the artist's indecision in painting this masterpiece, while the artist John Lessore explores the theme of his favourite painting in the collection. With actress Lizzy McInnerny performing a dramatic narration of an extract from Ovid's poem 'Metamorphosis'.

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'

     

    Find out more about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75

     

    Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

    Read More
     thumbnail04:08

    Paintings decoded

    Artist John Lessore and Restorer Jill Dunkerton: 'The Death of Actaeon'

    Movie
  • James Heard (in the studio): This is John Julius Angerstein, an important connoisseur of painting.  In the 1820s, his collection of 38 pictures became the nucleus of the new National Gallery and included this 'Adoration of the Shepherds', which he believed was painted by the Dutch master Rembrandt. In the harsh light of the gallery’s photographic studio, curator Marjorie Wieseman explains why this is not a signature Rembrandt.

    Marjorie Wieseman: This is a painting that has been in the Gallery since the early 19th century. It is a version, or a variant of a painting in Munich that we know was painted by Rembrandt in 1646. And for many years it was thought to be Rembrandt’s, perhaps, preliminary study for that larger painting, or maybe a variance that he made after completing that painting. It’s quite different to the painting in Munich; the composition is reversed. So in the Munich painting, the holy family is on the right and the shepherds enter from the left.

    Recently the decision was made to clean the painting to remove layers and layers of discoloured, murky varnish from the painting and some re-paints and see exactly what the painting itself looked like. We gained a lot of definition in the areas of the painting that are painted in this, sort of, shadowy brown. The rafters became much more legible and also the figures over here on the right hand side of the composition. As those details became clearer, it became easier to see that the brushwork and the technique of applying the paint was really quite different from anything Rembrandt ever did.

    Our scientific department did some analysis of the materials used in this painting and there’s a very distinctive, sort of canvas preparation, a ground layer, that was only used, so far as we know, by Rembrandt and the artists in his immediate studio, and this painting has that, sort of ground. Rembrandt, throughout much of his career had quite a large studio of artists working with him and working for him. The less experienced young artist would make a very exact copy, as best he could, and the more advanced student would use Rembrandt’s work as the basis for a more creative interpretation. And judging from the extent of the creative departure from the original in this painting, we can probably safely assume that it was done by quite an advanced assistant in Rembrandt’s studio.

    James Heard: See this painting and discover many more stories behind National Gallery pictures in Close Examination, Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries.

    In conversation

    Curator Betsy Wieseman and James Heard: 'Adoration of the Shepherds'

    About the video:

     

    How do we know this painting isn't a signature Rembrandt?

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

     

    Find out more about the 2010 exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

     

    Read about the cleaning and scientific analysis of Pupil of Rembrandt, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646

    About the video:

     

    How do we know this painting isn't a signature Rembrandt?

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

     

    Find out more about the 2010 exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

     

    Read about the cleaning and scientific analysis of Pupil of Rembrandt, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1646

    Read More
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    In conversation

    Curator Betsy Wieseman and James Heard: 'Adoration of the Shepherds'

    Movie
  • James Heard: This fragment of a painting by Wolf Huber, 'Christ taking Leave of his Mother', from around 1520, was acquired by the Gallery in 1995. The Virgin Mary is shown lamenting her son Christ’s departure for Jerusalem, where he will die on the cross. The picture is a fragment of a larger composition. On the far right, Christ’s hand remains, giving the sign of blessing to the Virgin. The panel had evidently been restored within the last 30 years, however, certain details looked odd.  After cleaning, the impact of the earlier damage was even clearer. At some time in the past, the joins between the planks had come apart. Before gluing them together again, a carpenter had run a plane along their lengths making a neater join, but losing several millimetres of paint. As a result, the contours were no longer aligned.

    Here, a much larger piece of wood is missing. The ends of the fingers are also misaligned. It was decided to take the panel apart so that it could be correctly reassembled. For this operation, the paint is protected with strong tissue paper attached with an acrylic varnish. To replace the wood lost along the joins, new strips were cut from carefully selected and well-seasoned pine.

    [Classical music plays]

    James Heard: To glue the joins, a special clamping table was used. This enables the conservator to apply gentle, precisely controlled pressure from any direction.

    [Classical music plays]

    James Heard: Piece by piece, the panel is reassembled. The painting is now varnished and ready for retouching to begin. The retouching is restricted to areas of damage and is carried out using modern pigments in a stable and readily reversible acrylic medium.

    [Classical music plays]

    James Heard: Finally, the wide insert is restored. At the top and bottom of the wide insert the edges are slightly angled, allowing the new wood and paint to be easily identified.

    [Classical music plays]

    James Heard: Finally, the painting is put back on display in the National Gallery.

    Technical insight

    James Heard discusses 'Christ taking leave of his Mother'

    About the video:

     

    See a restoration in action. Wolf Huber's 'Christ taking leave of his Mother', a 16th-century painting, had been badly damaged. Watch the panels get joined carefully back together and the final retouching of losses of paint – with James Heard, National Gallery Education.

     

    From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD

     

    Find out more about Wolf Huber, Christ taking leave of his Mother, about 1520

    About the video:

     

    See a restoration in action. Wolf Huber's 'Christ taking leave of his Mother', a 16th-century painting, had been badly damaged. Watch the panels get joined carefully back together and the final retouching of losses of paint – with James Heard, National Gallery Education.

     

    From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD

     

    Find out more about Wolf Huber, Christ taking leave of his Mother, about 1520

    Read More
     thumbnail04:41

    Technical insight

    James Heard discusses 'Christ taking leave of his Mother'

    Movie
  • James Heard: The Gallery owns several paintings which have previously been modified to satisfy changing tastes or interpretations. When 'Woman at a Window' was acquired by the gallery in the mid-19th century it depicted a demure young brunette looking out from behind a curtain. A black and white photograph records the painting in this condition. However, when the heavily discoloured varnish was cleaned off in the conservation studio, it was realised that the picture had been substantially modified. Careful removal in stages of the later surface paint revealed a far more provocative woman.

    It became apparent that the original painting by an unknown Italian painter, dated to around 1510 to 1530 had been dramatically altered in the 19th century to satisfy more restrained Victorian tastes. The Renaissance girl’s blonde hair had been switched to brunette, her suggestive sideways glance tamed with wider and more innocent eyes, and her bodice rendered less revealing. The intent of the original Renaissance painting can once again be appreciated after the removal of these falsifying accretions.

    Coming soon; Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes, and Discoveries.

    Close examination

    James Heard uncovers 'Woman at a Window'

    About the video:

     

    Discover what was revealed in cleaning this Italian Renaissance painting - with James Heard, National Gallery Education

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

     

    Read about the cleaning and restoration of Italian, North, Woman at a Window, probably 1510-30

     

    More about the 2010 exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

    About the video:

     

    Discover what was revealed in cleaning this Italian Renaissance painting - with James Heard, National Gallery Education

     

    From the National Gallery DVD, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

     

    Read about the cleaning and restoration of Italian, North, Woman at a Window, probably 1510-30

     

    More about the 2010 exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

    Read More
     thumbnail01:44

    Close examination

    James Heard uncovers 'Woman at a Window'

    Movie
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