Category Archives: From Conservation

Whistler’s Watercolors: Sneak Peek

James McNeill Whistler's watercolor "Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel"

James McNeill Whistler’s watercolor “Blue and Silver: Chopping Channel”

Senior Scientist Blythe McCarthy, Curator Lee Glazer, and I are undertaking a technical examination and analysis of James McNeill Whistler’s watercolors, based on the fifty-two watercolor paintings—the largest number of Whistler watercolors in any one location—in our collection. This study involves visual analysis, art historical research, and scientific study using a number of analytical techniques. It will culminate in an exhibition of Whistler watercolors in 2018. Until then, here is a sneak peek of some of our findings thus far.

Hot or Not?
The most commonly used supports for watercolor painting in the nineteenth century were wove paper and paperboard. Whistler used both. In fact, while Whistler was quite innovative in his paper choices for etchings, he appears to have been much more traditional in those he used for watercolors.

His preferred papers were manufactured with textures that can change and enhance watercolor’s appearance. During the nineteenth century, these surfaces were sold with the following designations: hot press, cold press, and rough. “Hot press” refers to paper that has been run through hot rollers to impart a very smooth, flattened surface. “Cold press”—also called “not,” as in “not hot pressed”—has been run through cold rollers, which partially smooth the rough surface of the paper fibers. “Rough” indicates a paper that has only been air-dried, with no pressing of the surface to flatten or smooth it.

Below are photographs of three Whistler watercolors, taken through the microscope at five times magnification. Can you see the differences in the surface textures?

hotcoldrough

 

Sanding the Beach
Whistler used many of the techniques discussed in watercolor manuals of his day, including rewetting and blotting, rubbing and sanding. We found evidence of several techniques in the section of his painting Southend: The Pleasure Yacht highlighted below. First, Whistler painted a blue wash. He then sanded the paper, which removed the blue from the high spots but left the color in small depressions. Lastly, he painted another, drier wash of a sandy color, which sits on the high points of the paper. The fibers in this worked area appear rough and lifted.

southend

Paper Source
Watermarks, as seen in modern currency, are thinner areas of the paper that look transparent when held up to a light. About half of Whistler’s watercolors are mounted to cardboard supports, so it’s nearly impossible to see if there are watermarks in the paper. Using computed digital X-radiography, though, we were able to read a watermark on one of our mounted watercolors. Though it’s difficult to see, the watermark revealed below reads: “J. Whatman/Turkey Mill/189?” It tells us that the paper was made by James Whatman, a preeminent British papermaker of the eighteenth century.

watermark

Outfit Change
We examined all of the watercolors using a technique called reflected infrared photography, which can enhance and reveal underdrawings and reworking. Using filters to block visible and ultraviolet light from entering the camera, we can generate an image of reflected infrared light. Carbon and other pigments absorb this light and appear darker than normal. The image below shows a change Whistler made while painting the skirt in his portrait of Milly Finch.

milly-finch

Want to know more? Read a past post on Whistler’s drawings, and stay tuned for more conservation insights as this project moves forward.

Reviving “The Death of the Historical Buddha”

 

Standing sixteen feet tall, The Death of the Historical Buddha by Japanese artist Hanabusa Itchō is among the most important Buddhist paintings of its time. Two of our conservators recently traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to help restore this massive hanging scroll, which hasn’t been treated and remounted since the 1850s. With the help of a GoPro camera, we’re able to give a quick look at their many hours of work. Below, supervisory conservator Andrew Hare talks about the project and the conservation processes seen in these time lapses.

Fellow conservator Jiro Ueda and I headed up to Boston in August to join the MFA’s conservation project. Over the past month, we have helped restore and remount a large Buddhist painting in one of their galleries, with public access available throughout the process.

As seen in the video above, we applied a temporary facing to the painting (front and back) using water and several layers of synthetic and Chinese papers. This process protects the painting’s surface while gently drawing away staining and soiling. We then placed the painting between layers of felt to dry.

 

 

Next, we covered the work table with several layers of protective paper. We then laid the painting on the work surface and humidified it before removing the temporary facing from the front. After more humidifying, we turned the painting face down on the table. We removed sections of the old lining paper that covered creases in the work, and then brushed out those sections to expand the creases and make the painting flat.

 

 

In the third video, we are carefully removing the old lining paper from the back of the painting using tweezers and bamboo spatulas. This is careful and time-consuming work. To complete the removal as efficiently as possible, Chinese painting conservation colleagues from the MFA Boston team joined in to help. As we removed large sections of the old lining, about a quarter of the painting at a time, we applied a new lining of thin Mino paper with wheat starch paste. Once the entire painting was relined, we again left it to dry between felt.

The project continues in Boston, where the public can watch the conservators at work. Follow along on our blog and the MFA‘s. 

A Journey into Whistler’s Drawings

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Entré sur la Grande Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

More than 150 years ago, a twenty-four-year-old James McNeill Whistler set off on a summertime journey. He and his friend Ernest Delannoy—both young, aspiring artists—embarked on a road trip through the French and German countryside. Their goal was to visit Amsterdam and pay homage to the revered Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt van Rijn.

Whistler and Delannoy never made it to Amsterdam; they ran out of money and were forced to return to Paris. But the sojourn gave Whistler an opportunity to observe new scenery and subjects and to develop his artistic style. Throughout the trip, the artist kept a notebook, a visual diary of sorts, which he filled with pencil sketches detailing scenes, people, and places along the way. He produced scores of drawings, some of which he later developed as etchings for his so-called French Set.

This summer, I too traveled in pursuit of art. My journey took me from Colby College in Maine to Washington, DC, for an internship at the Freer|Sackler. When I arrived in June, just a few weeks after graduating with a degree in art history, I began surveying the collection of Whistler’s drawings in media other than watercolor and pastel. The majority of the drawings I looked at were from Whistler’s 1858 trip.

I had extensive background knowledge from my previous experience studying Whistler’s work at the Colby College Museum of Art, a fellow member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies. This project, however, gave me the new opportunity of handling the works. Emily Jacobson, the museum’s paper conservator, showed me how to handle the art. She then let me work on my own with a headband magnifier and flashlight to conduct what was essentially a forensic examination of each sheet.

Examining Whistler's drawings

Examining Whistler’s drawings

We were trying to determine if Whistler favored particular types of paper for a given medium or if he mixed it up, using, for instance, watercolor blocks for pencil drawings. As I examined each drawing, I paid particular attention to the paper, noting its texture and whether it was “hot press” (run through hot rollers to make it super smooth), “cold press” (run through cold rollers, leaving little bumps and grooves); or “rough” (air-dried, leaving lots of texture). I checked for watermarks; measured the paper’s height, width, and thickness; and inspected the edges for remains of adhesive or fabric. Along the way, I noticed distinct similarities among the sketches, such as the thin, off-white woven paper, the graphite markings on the edges, and the occasional appearance of sewing holes—evidence that papers were ripped or cut out of a sketchbook.

One sketch in particular stood out to me: Promenade à Baden, which depicts a group of fashionable people standing near a portico facing a hill. The drawing is on two pieces of paper glued together side by side. The edges are uneven, and the two pieces do not properly align, making the bottom wider than the top. A vertical fold down the middle of the drawing contains three sewing holes, and like the other sketches from Whistler’s 1858 trip, Promenade à Baden has graphite markings on the edges.

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Promenade à Baden; James McNeill Whistler, 1858

Even though Whistler probably never meant it to be a finished work, Promenade à Baden fascinated me because it reveals some of the artist’s process. Not only does this sketch provide us with a snapshot of Whistler’s journey, but it also demonstrates how he experimented with cropping and cutting his drawings. The graphite along the edges was probably how he marked where the paper should be trimmed. Additional cut marks near the edges suggest that he considered cropping the drawing even more before ultimately deciding against it. One thin sheet of paper tells us a story of a young, broke artist who, to further his artistic development, drew on anything he could and made the most of each sheet of paper.

ImaginAsia: The Lost Finger

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period, 1185–1333; wood (Cryptomeria japonica); Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1949.20

All was still, absolutely still as the moon rose over the National Mall in Washington, DC. The visitors had left, and the Freer|Sackler was eerily quiet. A shaft of moonlight pierced the museum’s skylights and flooded over the Japanese guardian figures standing proudly in the hallway. Under the magic of the moon, the figures slowly came to life. Towering over mere mortals and rippling with muscles, the guardians were an intimidating sight. In their earlier history, the figures stood guard in front of a Buddhist temple, but that night they battled fierce demons to defend the art collections of the Freer|Sackler.

The next morning, one of our security officers noticed a finger belonging to the guardian figure pictured above resting on its pedestal. It must have been a fearsome fight . . .

Well, OK, that’s probably not exactly how it happened. The only thing we know for sure about that incident in April 2009 is that the security officer found the finger and called me, Ellen Chase, objects conservator. At the Freer|Sackler, we do have figures who fight to defend the collection—but we aren’t made of wood (and we have much smaller muscles). We work in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

The Freer|Sackler Objects Lab.

Please Don’t Touch
When you go to museums, there often are a lot of “Please don’t touch” signs. But why? It’s because art is a lot more fragile than it seems. The guardians are so big that it is hard to imagine they are delicate, but the wood is at least six hundred years old and can be brittle. Instead of being sacrificed during a brutal fight to defend the museum, the finger more likely was knocked off by a visitor who got too close.

Besides the risk of breaking off a piece, there are a few really big reasons why we ask you to not touch the art:

  1. Touching an artwork just one time doesn’t seem like it would have much impact. But each time someone moves their hand across an object, a tiny bit is rubbed off. Over time, this contact can cause a lot of damage. For example, look inside this installation in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum:rubbed patina _NMNH
    See the part that looks shiny rather than dark? That’s where people have rubbed off the dark brown layer, or patina. It’s OK in this case—the museum intended for people to touch the object—but what if it weren’t?
  2. Everyone has oils on their hands. When you touch something, you leave some of those oils behind, creating your unique fingerprints. Those residues also can cause damage. Check out this lacquer lid of a ewer in our collection that has fingerprints etched into the surface from oils left behind. We can’t get the prints off; they are now part of the object.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

    Fingerprint on the lacquer lid of a Karatsu ware ewer or freshwater jar.

  3. Unless you just washed your hands, remainders of anything else you touched recently will be left on the art as well. So those Nacho Cheese Doritos you had in your lunch? Yup. They’re on there too. As conservators, we wash our hands really well before working with art. And for really sensitive materials, like metals or lacquer or ivory, we also wear gloves.

Try This
Many works of art and historic objects are unique, the only examples of their kind in the world. And every time someone touches one of these objects in the gallery, we lose a little bit of history. Wanna see what I mean? Try this activity and see what happens—and send me pictures!

Take a piece of white printer paper and cover half of it with plastic wrap. Place it at the door of your house or classroom, or another place with a lot of foot traffic (the bathroom, maybe?). Ask everyone to touch or rub the material every time they walk by. Check back in two weeks. What has happened to the exposed part of the object? How does it compare to the side that is covered? What does it make you think about museums’ “don’t touch” policy?

collage

This is the first in a series of blog posts for kids who are interested in art conservation. Follow along for more behind-the-scenes looks at why and how we care for our collections, working to protect and conserve art for you today as well as for future visitors. What do you want to know? We’d love to hear your questions and comments!

Shining a Light on Jades at the Freer|Sackler

Chisel-shaped object; China, Song dynasty, 960–1279; jade (nephrite, actinolite/tremolite); Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.28

Chisel-shaped object; China, Song dynasty, 960–1279; jade (nephrite, actinolite/tremolite); Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.28

Jade was the material most highly prized by the ancient Chinese. Its polish, brilliance, subtle and translucent colors, and extreme toughness have long been associated with the quality of virtue and the concepts of the soul and immortality. The Freer|Sackler’s collections of jades include works of exceptional artistic quality, as well pieces of great cultural, historical, and sociological importance. Searching Open F|S, our fully digitized collection, is a superb way to become familiar with this unparalleled group of jade objects.

Next year, we will further expand access to our holdings with an online jade catalogue. As we prepare to make the evolving field of research on Chinese jades available to the public, we decided to test objects not previously examined for mineral composition to ensure our reports are complete and accurate. Jade is a chemically complex material, and studying its mineral composition is one way to understand more about the choices made by artisans in ancient China. The material properties can provide insights into jade sources, how jades were worked, and how they have changed since they were made.

Xiao Ma, MCI intern, uses a portable Vis/NIR in to analyze a Neolithic jade bi.

Xiao Ma, MCI intern, uses a portable Vis/NIR in to analyze a Neolithic jade bi.

Xiao Ma, a recent intern at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), and I spent a few days studying the jades using two noninvasive methods: portable Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and Visible-Near Infrared spectroscopy (Vis-NIR). Both techniques deliver data directly from the surface of a jade in just a few minutes, and because no sample is required, there is no risk of damage to the object.

Example of a Vis-NIR spectrum of a Liangzhu jade bead (F1912.29a) composed of nephrite. The fingerprint bands for nephrite include 1394 nm, 2316 nm, and 2388 nm.

Example of a Vis-NIR spectrum of a Liangzhu jade bead (F1912.29a) composed of nephrite. The fingerprint bands for nephrite include 1394 nm, 2316 nm, and 2388 nm.

How do FTIR and Vis-NIR work? The light we typically see is within the visible portion (400–760 nm) of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, or the part that human eyes can detect. The light we cannot see, above and below the visible portion, plays an important role in analyzing the composition of materials. For instance, the FTIR technique uses mid-infrared light (2500–25000 nm) to interact with the molecules that make up a jade object. As the infrared light is reflected back to a detector, FTIR measures how well the jade absorbs it at each wavelength, helping us create a molecular fingerprint.

Vis-NIR spectroscopy uses light in the visible region (400–760 nm) and overtones in the near-infrared region (760–2500 nm) to measure light that a material absorbs and scatters. Using this method, we placed jade objects near a light source; the light reflected from the object was collected by the Vis-NIR’s photodetector. The Vis-NIR spectrometer is particularly useful for analyzing mineral composition, as it is highly sensitive to electron transitions in both the visible and near-infrared regions.

We analyzed a total of 103 jades, including bi disks, cong tubes, pendants, ornaments, beads, and axes. Besides the most common jade material, nephrite (tremolite/actinolite), we also found other minerals, such as serpentine, quartz, and diopside. Our research methods and findings promise to serve as guidelines for museums to quickly and noninvasively analyze jade collections. Stay tuned to see more discoveries in the online catalogue when it is released next year.

Museum TLC: Sound Advice

Visitors take a tour of "Peacock Room REMIX" during Asia After Dark.

Visitors take a tour of “Peacock Room REMIX” during Asia After Dark: PEACOCKalypse.

A recent article in the Washington Post talked about the possible effects of loud music on artworks during large-scale museum events. We hear you and appreciate your concern. In fact, sound, light, temperature, and security are all factors that go into the planning and exhibiting of artworks. How does a museum care for its objects on exhibit while providing interesting, closeup experiences for visitors? Let’s ask the experts.

When I spoke to Beth Duley, head of collections management at the Freer|Sackler, she talked about the delicate balance between care and access. “Smithsonian museums are open 364 days a year, and we host millions of visitors,” she told me, adding, “Maintaining that balance is part of the day-to-day function of our job. In my 25 years at Freer|Sackler, no artwork has ever been damaged at an event.”

According to Jenifer Bosworth, exhibitions conservator, the process of caring for artworks begins long before objects are chosen for exhibition. “Our conservation department ensures that all objects chosen for display are in good condition and that an appropriate level of security for each object is reflected in the exhibition design. Specially made cases and vitrines, as well as custom-built mounts, are all fabricated with the objects’ safety in mind. We want people to get as close as possible, because that’s an amazing part of seeing great works of art in person.”

This preparation keeps artwork protected both during normal wear and tear (the constant vibration of passing trucks, the occasional wayward umbrella) and extraordinary circumstances (the 2013 earthquake that rocked DC). “After the earthquake, I ran into the Peacock Room, and all of the ceramics were still safely held in their specially made mounts,” said Duley.

For special events, such as the museums’ popular Asia After Dark after-hours parties, the entire staff works together. Conservators, curators, and security guards start early and work closely with event planners to map out traffic flow and the placement of speakers, lights, food and drink, and furniture. Conservators and members of the collections management team act as monitors during the event to ensure that all works of art remain safe and sound.

And speaking of sound, what about the issue of loud music in the galleries? Bosworth told me, “If anyone on my team feels that vibrations from a music performance could affect construction materials within the galleries and thus potentially the art, we address the issue immediately.” In fact, the effects of loud music on works of art have been studied in the conservation literature.

We strive to protect our objects on display while providing visitors a variety of ways to experience and learn about our collections. Our staff works together to find the best ways to balance security and access. This allows visitors to return to the Freer|Sackler often, knowing that their favorite works of art will still be here for their children and grandchildren, and the generations to come.

Beyond the Instagram Filter

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Blue and Gold: The Rose Azalea; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, ca. 1890–95; watercolor on brown paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1894.25. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). The yellow-green fluorescence in the UV image indicates the presence of zinc oxide (zinc white).

Most of us are familiar with the transformational power of Instagram filters such as Amaro and Earlybird, and the magic they can work for our amateur iPhone photography. But what can we learn in an art historical context by making use of traditional camera filters? Multispectral imaging uses cameras that can “see” into the ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, allowing us to photograph features of artworks that are not visible to the naked eye. At the Freer|Sackler, I used the conservation department’s Nikon D100 camera and Kodak Wratten gelatin filters to create UVIR photographs of the museum’s entire collection of watercolors by James McNeill Whistler. These photographs will be used as part of a larger project called Whistler and Watercolor, a collaborative, technical art history research project by an F|S conservator, curator, and conservation scientist.

While most of Whistler’s oeuvre has had the benefit of in-depth study, the watercolors have been waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Whistler created more than three hundred watercolors in his lifetime, most of which were executed in the 1880s, during the height of his fame. Museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired fifty-two of them. Whistler and Watercolor will provide Whistler scholars and enthusiasts with a technical description of the artist’s working methods in watercolor. Were his materials and techniques similar or significantly different from the way he used other mediums? How do they compare to watercolors by other artists of the time period? Did he follow the methods taught in watercolor manuals and how-to books of the late nineteenth century or was he more innovative and experimental?

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Reconstructed 19th-century watercolor palette. Left to right: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV)

Multispectral imaging using traditional photographic filters can help us answer some of these questions. Look at the three images above for an example of a reconstructed nineteenth-century palette (like Whistler’s) photographed normally and then using two gelatin filters with different light sources. Certain pigments exhibit characteristic behaviors in reflected infrared (IR) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV) that allow us to identify them. Cobalt-containing pigments, such as cerulean blue or cobalt green, become transparent and disappear completely in reflected infrared (at approx. 850 nm). With ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence, red madder lake typically emits a red fluorescent “glow” due to the presence of a compound called purpurin. By using photographic filters, as well as a variety of other techniques to back up these visual observations, it will be possible to reconstruct Whistler’s use of watercolor pigments in the late nineteenth century to aid future research and study.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

London Bridge; James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903); United States, early 1880s; pencil and watercolor on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1905.115. Top to bottom: visible light; reflected infrared (IR); ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UV). Note the enhanced visualization of the graphite underdrawing in the IR image.

Zooming In: Crystal Clear

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

Photomicrographs at 6x and 50x magnification of stained-glass windows from a painting in the Haft awrang (16th c.) exemplify the use of geometric patterns in manuscript painting. Photomicrographs of a penny have been taken at the same magnifications to emphasize the minute scale of the painted patterns.

This is the third and final post in Amanda Malkin’s series exploring geometric patterns in Islamic paintings, focusing on the possible use of optical devices by the manuscript illustrator. Previous posts discussed Geometric Patterns in Islamic Paintings and Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator.

The first true magnifying lens—an instrument with a handle created for the purpose of magnification—was developed in 1250 CE by Roger Bacon in England. However, a large group of archaeologists and scientists believes that ancient cultures were experimenting with rudimentary optical devices, made from rock crystal, many centuries before Bacon.

Rock crystals with plano-convex surfaces dating from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE have been found in Egypt, Greece, and Mediterranean cities. Many of these rock crystals were of optical quality, according to the definition put forth by Dominic Ingemark in his article “A Rare Rock-Crystal Object from Pompeii.” That is, the rock crystal is acceptably transparent and homogeneous with at least one surface that is curved with minor surface irregularities. Additionally, the crystal must be able to form a reasonable image.

There is an interesting, ongoing debate regarding the function of these highly valuable rock crystals. Some theories suggest they were used as decoration on furniture, game pieces, or medical instruments. Ancient sources describe bi-convex lenses—basically, glass or rock-crystal balls—that were used to cauterize wounds or remove tissue. These sources do not mention the use of plano-convex lenses as optical devices, and this absence is convincing evidence, for some, that they were not used as such.

However, other scholars argue that the craftsmen who made the “lens-shaped objects,” as they are sometimes called, would have had to use an optical device themselves to do such precise work. The minute, archaic decoration on engraved gems, coins, cylinder seals, intricate jewelry, and of course, manuscript illustrations also suggest that lenses were present and used. The quality and precision of the microscopic ornamentation seem inconceivable without the use of magnifying lenses.

A controversial theory suggests that, instead of using lenses, men with myopia, or nearsightedness, were sought out and trained as craftsmen. Their distorted, magnified vision could have been exploited for creative purposes. The hypothesis, based on thoughtful and clearly investigated theories regarding genetics and a possibly high occurrence of myopia in early civilizations, remains an over-reaching argument. It seems unrealistic to believe that, even with extensive training, men with myopia could have become the majority of master engravers. Their optic handicap would have hindered their work as apprentices: Publications state that master engravers traditionally dealt with the raw stone and carried out the intricate work, while their assistants did the grinding and polishing.

The lack of written historical evidence confirming the function of these somewhat mysterious objects has made this research incredibly intriguing. Although the results are inconclusive, it is certain that as more plano-convex rock crystals are unearthed, more knowledge and information will follow.

Mats Matter

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Gopis Search for Krishna from a Bhagavata Purana; Punjab Hills, India, ca. 1780; opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Purchase, F1930.84

The Islamic and Indian paintings at the Freer|Sackler are breathing a huge sigh of relief now that the pressure is off! Over the last few months, the paper lab of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research has rehoused more than one thousand individual folios into new window mats. The window mats relieve the paintings’ fragile surfaces from any pressure when stacked in storage boxes—critical for their long-term preservation. Plus, the paintings just look better that way.

Every painting had to be individually measured and the measurements entered into a spreadsheet. The data was sent in batches to an outside contractor. In return, every couple of weeks we would receive 200–250 newly cut mats. We then had to remove the paintings from their old folders, add new hinges, and attach them into the new mats. We make our hinges in-house from Japanese paper, and each hinge is cut to size to fit the particular folio. Since at least two hinges are used to hold each painting in the window mat, we went through more than 2,024 individual hinges! Although one thousand new mats were cut, 1,012 individual folios were rehoused, since some are presented in double window mats (a single mat with two window openings).

Old, insubstantial folders at left, and new, clean and sturdy mats on the right.

Old, fragile mats on the left; new, clean, and sturdy mats on the right.

One hundred sixty-eight folios had already been placed in mats in-house for various rotations, exhibitions, and loans, bringing the grand total of matted folios to 1,180. But that’s not everything. We still have approximately one hundred Islamic and Indian paintings left to move into mats in the future. Then, on to other collections!

The project was funded by a Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund grant. It could not have happened without the untiring work of Amanda Malkin (Hagop Kevorkian Fellow in Islamic painting conservation and hinger extraordinaire), Stacy Bowe (mat-measuring maniac and intern), and Emily Cummins (pre-program intern).

Zooming In: Tools of the Manuscript Illustrator (part two)

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Geometric patterns in Islamic manuscripts

Amanda Malkin is the Hagop Kevorkian Fund Fellow Paper Conservator at the Freer|Sackler. This is the second in a series of blog posts that explores geometric patterns in Islamic paintings.

It is clear that the complicated geometric patterns I have observed in many manuscript paintings have, at their core, the circle and the square. During my research into the tools and techniques of manuscript painters, I uncovered two schools of thought regarding the working processes and specific methods used to create these miniscule, complex patterns.

The first theory—and my initial assumption—is that Islamic artisans and craftsmen utilized the long-appreciated ruler and compass to create geometric patterns, which are known as girih. It is exciting to see that, by overlapping certain shapes and connecting those shapes with the straight line of a ruler, one can produce endless geometric constructions. This theory, known as strapwork, is accepted by many scholars and institutions that collect and study Islamic art.

It is possible, however, that another method of construction was utilized in ancient Islam, and this is the second, more recent hypothesis. Physicists Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt, of Harvard and Princeton Universities, respectively, proposed that, by using a group of five tiles of varying shapes, artisans could more quickly and exactly construct extremely complex geometric designs. These tiles are called Girih tiles, and they are described by the physicists as “equilateral polygons decorated with lines.” The shapes of the polygons are not random but stem from the empty spaces observed within the basic patterns of circles and squares. When you observe, for example, repeated hexagons, you will see that there are additional shapes created between them.

Steinhardt and Lu’s theory is based on the existence of a late fifteenth-century object in the collection of the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, known as the Topkapi Scroll. The scroll was discovered in 1986 and contains drawings and pattern constructions using the five Girih tiles, likely used as a reference document in a craftsman’s workshop during the Timurid dynasty.

In light of the exciting evidence discovered on the Topkapi Scroll, I believe that both methods described above were likely utilized by illustrators in different regions and with varying skill levels, in order to assist them in the manner that best suited their work.

View Peter Lu’s animation of the Topkapi Scroll.

Stayed tuned for Amanda’s third—and final—post in the series.