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Palazzo Strozzi To Open "Painting Light: The hidden techniques of the Impressionists"
Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94), Laundry Drying on the Bank of the Seine, c. 1892. Oil on canvas, 105.5 x 150.5 cm. Wallraf-Richartz Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne.

FLORENCE, ITALY.- An exhibition of major works by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters reveals the secrets behind some of the world’s best-loved paintings. Painting Light: The hidden techniques of the Impressionists will be staged at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence from 11 July to 28 September 2008. The exhibition comprises over sixty works including masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Caillebotte and Signac which will be shown alongside such evocative objects as one of Monet’s palettes as well as technological images of the pictures themselves. This juxtaposition of art and extensive research produces a fascinating insight that will take visitors by surprise. The majority of paintings come from the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud which has the most comprehensive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in Germany . Other major works have been loaned by German, French and Swiss museums as well as the Tate in London and private collectors.

How did the Impressionist artists create their works which at first shocked the art world and later became some of the most popular paintings ever created? What techniques and materials did they use to give life to their hugely influential contribution to the evolution of modern art? Much information hidden beneath the visible surfaces of paintings has been revealed through extensive technological study undertaken by a team of expert restorers, scientists and art historians. This important project called ‘Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Painting Technique’ began in 2002 under the direction of the restoration department of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne where this innovative and informative exhibition was shown earlier this year.

The valuable works have been studied using the most up-to-date techniques such as stereomicroscopy, scientific materials analysis and X-ray, ultra violet and infra-red imaging as well as a detective’s nose for clues. The research team analysed the various processes involved in creating the paintings, checked for natural signs of aging or searched for particular signs of manipulation, all of which threw new light on the history of each picture. The research even provided proof that an artist had actually painted outdoors.

The exhibition explores many aspects of Impressionism and poses a series of questions beginning with ‘What is an impression?’ The physical elements of light, colour and sensory perception are highlighted while projections of changing light imitating different times of day demonstrate the influence of light on paintings. The materials and implements the Impressionists used are explored through a re-creation of a 19th century art supplies shop displaying brushes, canvases, palettes and paints, several loaned by the Winsor & Newton collection from Harrow in Middlesex, as well as a wooden paintbox from the Museum of London. This shows the immense influence of such technical progress as recently discovered colour tones or the invention of oil paint in tubes that made it so much easier for the Impressionists to create their legendary plein air or open air paintings.

The technological detective work has in many cases been able to pinpoint where a painting was originally created. For example the question ‘Inside or out?’ has been answered by the discovery of countless grains of sand in The Sea at Saint-Palais by Armand Guillaumin and by the bud of a poplar tree embedded in a landscape entitled Laundry Drying on the Bank of the Seine by Gustave Caillebotte. In addition, this section includes a re-creation of both a studio and an open air situation with original props.

The goal of many Impressionists was to spontaneously capture a moment on canvas but how quick were they really? The section ‘Spontaneous or strategic?’ presents research that answers this question. Invisible underdrawings, first drafts and other meticulous preparations show how, behind the façade of spontaneity, artists such as Gauguin, Van Gogh or Caillebotte frequently worked very methodically. An infra-red reflectogram of Van Gogh’s Bridge at Clichy, 1887, reveals a detailed pencil underdrawing and the guidelines of the perspective frame.

‘When was a painting finished?’ Among the initial criticisms aimed at Impressionist pictures was their apparent lack of finish. The sketchy style, frequent lack of signature or varnish went against the usual rules and presented a problem for critics, collectors, dealers and even the artists themselves. The frame became a new sign of the completion of a painting for many artists who believed that its form and colouring should harmonise and enhance the work. Camille Pissarro, for example, was a great proponent of the stark white frame which has been reconstructed for Orchard at Pontoise at Sunset. Sadly Impressionist paintings still in their original frames are extremely rare.

The final question addressed is ‘How do we see the pictures today?’ All pictures change over time both through natural aging and later interventions such as overpainting or restoration. The technological studies undertaken demonstrate how changes of canvas, ground or colour layer influence the whole appearance of a painting. Farm at Bazincourt by Pissarro shows how pictures were added to and supposedly ‘improved’ by brushstrokes by others – additions that were not unusual in Impressionist works. Similarly forgeries created during the lifetime of the artists, a clear sign of their growing public recognition, can be unmasked by technological study. It can also give evidence for the attribution of a hitherto unacknowledged painting to a prominent artist, for example the exhibition presents for discussion the possible attribution of a portrait of a young woman to Edouard Manet.

Painting Light: The hidden techniques of the Impressionists comes to Florence at an exceptional time as the city is celebrating the centenary of Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908). Loved by Italians, Fattori was one of the leading members of the Macchiaioli, or Tuscan Impressionists, and the Impressionist masterpieces of Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir at the Palazzo Strozzi complement the city’s extensive programme of Fattori-related events and exhibitions. The exhibition not only offers a visual feast of wonderful paintings seldom seen outside Germany but also offers visitors the chance to be an ‘art detective’ – looking in detail at the clues the Impressionists left about how their paintings were made. There is even a special family programme that turns the exhibition into the setting for a ‘whodunit’.

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May 12, 2008

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