Fashion Fights In The 1600s: Parents Just Don’t Understand Their Kids’ Clothing Styles

Fashion trends come and go but one thing stays the same: Kids and parents often don’t see eye-to-eye on style. Even in 17th-century Amsterdam. A great example of this was recently unearthed by University of Delft researcher, Margriet van Eikema Hommes, when she took a closer look at paintings by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck. Flinck was a pupil of Rembrandt, but he had more commercial success than his teacher. Case in point: When Amsterdam’s new town hall was built in the mid 1600s, it featured several Flinck works but only one by Rembrandt, and this lone Rembrandt painting was removed after a year, van Eikema Hommes says. Flinck’s success was probably due to his strong familial connections to Amsterdam’s wealthy Mennonite community, who became his regular patrons. And therein lies the interesting historical fashion-friction. It turns out that Amsterdam’s Mennonite community favored solemn, dark outfits. Meanwhile 17th-century cool kids wore colorful tights. (Much as modern-day hipsters opt for brightly colored stockings…) In fact, some members of the Mennonite congregation would strike out against members who wore less conservative, fashionable clothing—clothing that the Mennonites considered indecent, van Eikema Hommes explains. Against this cultural backdrop, Flinck was asked to paint a portrait of his young Mennonite nephew Dirck. If you look at the final version of the portrait from 1636, the nephew looks pretty much like a conservative young Mennonite. But looks can be deceiving. When van Eikema Hommes started to analyze the portrait with X-rays, she discovered that beneath the painting was another portrait of Dirck (see the black and white image). The original portrait has Dirck in a left-foot-forward, aristocratic posture (compared to Dirck’s more somber pose in the final version), and the original has Dirck wearing substantially less conservative clothing. In particular, Flinck initially painted his nephew in a wider brimmed, fashionable hat, wearing a shirt with a wider, stylish collar and red tights instead of black ones. You can tell the tights were red in two ways, van Eikema Hommes says. First, you can actually see the red paint shimmering through the top layer of the artwork. But more conclusively, using X-ray fluorescence, she detected mercury on the artwork right where the legs were initially painted… and a common red paint of that era was vermillion, a mercury-based paint. So why did Flick paint over the original, fashionable portrait of Dirck? Probably because Flinck, Dirck or both men got cold feet about offending their Mennonite family members—and Flinck’s patrons. In the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, “Parents just don’t understand.” “There was nothing I could do, I tried to relax I got...

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Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum  (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room. If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF): When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures. They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint. They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense. And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms. Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics. Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves. The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists. Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.) This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. In 2010, he was first author on a PNAS paper that reported a cache of painted marine shells on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain that were produced by Neanderthals.  These shells were dated to 50,000 years ago, about 10,000 years before early humans showed up in Europe. The shells contain mineral pigment makeup that required some skill and know-how to produce. (The makeup was composed of fool’s gold, aka pyrite, and ground hematite, which can be red and black, all mixed in to a base of the rust-colored mineral, lepidocrocite) Not only did this research show Neanderthals were chemists, but it also suggests they painted themselves and wore jewelry. Of course, it’ll take many more of these discoveries before the entire research community is convinced that Neanderthals weren’t as dumb as we thought. (I’m reminded that history is written by the winners—us humans.) In fact, the other cool part of the current Science paper is that Zilhão and his colleague Alex Pike in Bristol used an uncommon technique to date the cave paintings. This method could be used to accurately determine the age of many more cave paintings, which could help provide additional evidence that Neanderthals were relatively civilized—or not. Since radiocarbon dating is not reliable for determining the age of cave art, the scientists relied on a method that measures the levels of uranium and thorium found in calcite crusts that build up on top of the cave art. (Calcite is the same mineral in stalagmites and stalactites.) Trace amounts of uranium but not thorium are found in the water that deposits the calcite on top of the art. Since uranium...

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Finding The Culprit For Van Gogh’s Darkening Yellows

The Sunflower still-life series is possibly Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. Unfortunately the warm yellow hues that make the paintings memorable come from pigments that don’t have a long life-expectancy. During the 19th century, chrome yellow pigments came in to fashion among painters and then quickly went out again, as artists realized that the vibrant yellow color was unstable and would lose its vibrancy when exposed to light. For example, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both steered clear of the chrome yellow pigments. But van Gogh threw caution to the wind and continued to use chrome yellow until his suicide in 1890—a tragic hint, perhaps, of his own instability and imminent breakdown. This week, conservation scientists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been taking a closer look at chrome yellow pigments in Vase with Sunflower, and a few other paintings, to learn more about the degradation problem. The museum’s staff has recruited a group of traveling conservation scientists from Perugia, Italy, called MOLAB to come help out. (MOLAB has a sophisticated collection of analytical equipment that can study artwork without harming it.) It’s not the first time MOLAB has worked on the chrome yellow issue. Last year, they worked with almost the same team of van Gogh experts to discover why chrome yellow turns from bright yellow to a dingy brown in the presence of sunlight. Here’s why: Chrome yellow pigment is primarily lead chromate (which, incidentally, is the pigment for yellow school buses and was also briefly used to color candy in the 1800s—yikes!). Different yellow hues can be made by mixing in lead chromate oxide and lead chromate sulfate. The darkening of the yellow paint occurs because the chromium in the pigment is reduced from a hexavalent (Cr6+) to a tetravalent (Cr3+) state. The team also reported that sulfur compounds in the paint seem to exacerbate the process. The sulfur is probably present from lead chromate sulfate added to modulate the yellow hue. MOLAB has been back in Amsterdam this week to study more van Gogh paintings, says Costanza Miliani, a lead researcher with MOLAB. The plan is to see if sulfur is indeed a culprit in chrome yellow degradation. Hopefully the team will eventually find a way to thwart and reverse this breakdown so that van Gogh’s vibrant yellows aren’t lost...

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Drilling Holes In To One Painting To Look For Another. Hmm…

This blog devotes a lot of digital real-estate to cool experiments on art and artifacts that are non-invasive, or at least minimally so. So I’ve got to admit that I was not particularly overwhelmed by the breathless reports last week in a myriad of media about a project to drill 14 holes into a Vasari painting in order to search for a possibly hidden da Vinci below. The articles were subsequent to a press release by National Geographic on March 12, which was presumably trying to raise interest in a documentary about the project airing a few days later (March 18). Yesterday the well-respected Art-Info published an interesting take-down of the drilling project, entitled “The Search for the Lost Da Vinci Fresco: Serious Science or Irresponsible Hype?” The piece pointed to a protest-petition against the project signed by 530 members of the museum community, including high-profile curators at the Met and the Louvre. According to the Art-Info article, none of these critical folks got face-time in the National Geographic Channel documentary. This is how the writer Kate Deimling put it: “”Finding the Lost Da Vinci,” which aired on the National Geographic Channel on March 18, certainly looked like an infomercial for the project. The program’s narrator describes opposition to the drilling as a “media feeding frenzy” and an “attack from the press,” but none of the experts opposed to it is interviewed or even mentioned by name. Instead, scientists in lab coats decry the opposition to their work and are then seen boring holes into the painting while dramatic music plays.” The Art-Info piece also voices criticism from the conservation science community, namely that the pigments detected by the drilling project might be from brick instead of paint. Another criticism is that non-invasive analytical equipment (such as newer radar technologies) should be used instead of destructive...

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Rare Aztec Document Gets A Check-Up

In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish invaders, who burned libraries and destroyed most of the manuscripts pertaining to Aztec history, religious rituals and economy. The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of just two dozen or so Aztec texts to survive the Spanish invasion. It’s also just one of just six screenfold books that were penned before Cortez started his conquest of Mexico’s indigenous people. So suffice to say that it’s a pretty exceptional record of the pre-Spanish Mesoamerican world. This codex is called a screenfold book because Aztec scholars would literally twist and fold the 22-page, double-sided document to cross-reference a particular date to two calendar cycles: the yearly cycle of 365 days and the sacred cycle of 260 days (called tonalpohualli). Joanna Ostapkowicz, a curator at the World Museum in Liverpool, which hosts Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, explains it in this way: “In the hands of ritual practitioners and other high-ranking individuals, the codex became a guide for people’s actions. The screenfold’s internal reading structure is right to left and is determined by the number-and-sign sets of the calendar: how the images and symbols cross-referenced each other was then interpreted by the reader, who was well versed in the significance of the various icons. Although an object of great respect, the codex was also a tactile, malleable reference tool: a user could consult both sides simultaneously by folding parts of the codex onto itself. Reading it offered guidance on appropriate days to travel, to celebrate a deity’s beneficence with sacrifices, to plant crops or to name a child.” These days the codex is not twisted and folded as it once was. In fact, it doesn’t get handled much at all due to the animal-skin document’s fragility and worth. When Mesoamerican experts want to study the codex, they typically have to rely on photographs, Ostapkowicz notes. A very rare exception was made a few weeks ago when MOLAB, a nomadic team of conservation scientists from Italy, drove up to Liverpool to help museum staff study the pigments, dyes and binders used to make the codex. The MOLAB team has a battery of snazzy equipment that can study fragile artwork without taking a sample of it—in the same way that an X-ray, ultrasound or MRI can give doctors insight about what’s going on inside a patient without invasive surgery or removal of a blood sample. In the case of the codex, the analytical equipment used by the scientists relies on X-rays and infrared light to diagnose the document’s inner make-up. I’m really looking forward to what the researchers find, once all the data is analyzed. As Ostapkowicz puts it,...

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