Close Examination: revealing the stories behind the paintings

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Transcript

This exhibition is on display on level -2 of the Sainsbury Wing and is open daily from June the 30th to September the 12th 2010.

The exhibition title, Close Examination, highlights the analytical techniques that are used by National Gallery experts in order to learn more about the Collection, helping them to care for the paintings and protect them for the future.

This exhibition celebrates the close collaboration between the Gallery’s scientists, conservators and historians and reveals some remarkable stories that are invisible to the naked eye.

With modern scientific techniques, we can go beyond the capabilities of human sight to unlock the secrets of a painting’s past, it’s maker or the period in which it was made.

Infra red photography can reveal underdrawings beneath the surface of a picture, scanning electron microscopes are able to identify specific pigment particles and dendrochronology is used to assess the age of wood panels.

Occasionally, the discoveries made behind the scenes at the National Gallery are truly revelatory and change our understanding of a picture: in 1991, this technique was used to prove that a previously overlooked painting was in fact a lost original by Raphael. This picture, The Madonna of the Pinks, is now part of the National Gallery’s collection.

Close Examination can also shed light on some longstanding mysteries and conundrums from the past.

Recently, a small Dutch painting in the Collection was the focus of investigation. 

This painting shows the holy family, with the baby Christ at its centre, adored by a gathering of shepherds. The scene takes place indoors, in a shadowy barn interior, lit only by the warm yellowy light of two lanterns. The painting has an overall brown tonality, with the figures arranged around the family grouping.

This painting was one of the first to enter the National Gallery collection in the early 19th century, when it was thought to be by Rembrandt. It is very similar to a large Nativity scene by Rembrandt in a collection in Munich.  Over the years, scholars have expressed doubts about this attribution, but until now no further investigation has taken place.

The painting was cleaned to remove layers of discoloured, murky varnish. Where previously there were large areas of shawdowy brown, for example in the rafters, if was now possible to see the colour and details more clearly. It was clear that the brushwork was quite different from anything Rembrandt ever did.

The best hypothesis is that the painting was made by an advanced student of Rembrandt’s working in his studio – a conclusion supported by further analysis of the preparation of the painting, which relates to studio practice.

This is the first major exhibition to explore the full range of scientific discoveries made by a leading art gallery within its collection.

The exhibition focuses on the fascinating stories behind more than 40 works, representing some of the major challenges faced by Gallery experts – including Raphael, Durer, Gossaert and Rembrandt.

The six rooms follow the theme of Deception, Transformations, Mistakes, and Recovery. There is also a room that focuses on Botticelli, where two works by this Renaissance master are hung side by side – inviting you to compare an original masterpiece or a deceptive imitation / pastiche.

Access to the exhibition is by lift or stairs from entrance level 0. Entrance is free and there is no need to book. The display area consists of an entrance lobby, followed by six exhibition rooms which are followed in a clockwise direction.

 
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