Over the past few years, a new generation of conservators and curators has focused on the history of panel making, its conservation and the various types of possible structural treatments. It has become increasingly evident that no publication exists that encompasses comprehensive knowledge in this field. It is noteworthy that the one publication that attempted this was Connaissance des Primitifs par l'étude du bois du XIIe au XVIe siècle by Jacqueline Marette, published in French over 50 years ago.
At the outset, it is worth saying a few words about the use of the term des Primitifs by Marette and her contemporaries to designate the early northern and southern European schools of painting between the 12th and the 16th century. According to Suzanne Sulzberger, writing in 1961 on the réhabilitation des Primitifs flamands 1802‒1867, the term was first coined for early Italian painting at the beginning of the 19th century in order to dissociate it from the negative denomination ‘Gothic painting’. Since the 18th century, German and French critics had frequently denigrated Gothic painting as ignorant of the rules of art, wanting in symmetry and lacking knowledge of the models of antiquity. In the 19th century, artists’ movements such as the sect of Parisian Primitifs trained by Louis David and led by Maurice Quai (1779‒1804), the Nazarenes in Germany and the Pre-Raphaelites in England helped to foster a renewed appreciation for the pre- and early Renaissance period. The term ‘primitive’, as in Italian Primitives, French Primitives, German Primitives and Flemish Primitives, was thus adopted and only fell out of favour in the last 20 years or so. 1Based on a synopsis of Sulzberger 1961: 14–20. Today, for example, the term ‘Flemish Primitives’ is often replaced by the more neutral ‘early Netherlandish painting’, since the word ‘primitive’ is considered somewhat pejorative and more appropriate for tribal art.
Regardless of changes in vocabulary and despite advances in technology, the vast body of knowledge in Marette’s Connaissance des Primitifs par l'étude du bois du XIIe au XVIe siècle remains highly relevant to curators, collections managers and practising conservators in disciplines such as the structural treatment of panel paintings, furniture and wooden objects in general. The republication and updated notes of this seminal work broadens considerably the transfer of Marette’s wide expertise and knowledge of panel-making techniques in northern Europe between the 12th and the 16th century. It should, however, be made clear that since 1961 much new research on the making of panel paintings has been conducted during examinations in galleries and museums. Combining this new information with a translated edition of Marette’s work was considered important to ensure that the work is kept up to date. To this end, the editors added detailed notes and references relating to the latest research. Furthermore, multilingual glossaries (English, French, Spanish, German and Italian) extend the reach of the new publication beyond its initial French–English scope, making certain that the core concepts and terminology are disseminated to the widest possible audience.
Obviously new understanding of panel-making techniques has developed on many levels since 1961. Following on from Marette in the 1960s, panel supports have been routinely documented and several pioneering studies conducted of paintings on wood from the point of view of panel construction, which are referenced in this publication. Despite this trend, original panel supports were still often sacrificed and replaced during treatment with the aim of conserving the paint layer.
Although the structure of panel paintings and the differing behaviour of wood and paint layers have long posed a challenge to conservators, today only relatively few within the conservation field have the experience necessary to deal with complicated structural issues. As conservation has evolved into a profession requiring specialised theoretical and scientific knowledge, in addition to practical expertise, the education of conservators has moved from workshops to formal academic programmes within universities and other institutions of higher learning. While academic frameworks for conservation have contributed to the recognition of conservation as a profession, academic programmes are often unable to allow sufficient time for students to acquire highly specialised craft skills and a full understanding of the structural issues of panel paintings. It is therefore imperative to create opportunities for a younger generation of professionals to obtain additional knowledge and skills, not only from more experienced colleagues through specialised training but also via publications such as this one. This new edition aims to provide a valuable tool for enhancing understanding of the sophistication of panels, the ways in which they were made and the ways in which they must now be cared for. This is particularly important as many conservators and historians often work in isolation, which means that skills, knowledge and issues of ethics in the conservation and public presentation of panel paintings within the various disciplines develop individually and in parallel, rather than in collaboration.
Wooden Supports in 12th–16th-Century European Paintings is designed to increase specialised understanding of the complex issues of the structural conservation of panel paintings and indirectly to advance best practice for the treatment of these works in collections around the world. As well as rendering Marette’s inestimable work available to the English-speaking world, it provides notes and references to the most recent literature in the field, together with illustrations and line drawings of joinery, assembly techniques, tools, etc. It is our hope that through this rich resource, curators and conservators will make better informed conservation treatment decisions for the precious panel paintings in their care.
Notes to the reader
The original text has been translated as it was published in 1961, and although the text is sometimes lacking the academic rigour that we take for granted today, no attempt has been made to remove or revise repetitions and/or structural inconsistencies. Furthermore, Marette defined the time period she studied as ranging from the 12th to the 16th century. Current definitions regard the ‘medieval period’ as lasting from the 5th to the 15th century, beginning with the collapse of the western Roman Empire and finishing with the Renaissance in Italy and the Age of Discovery. The High Middle Ages often refers to the period of European history around the 11th to the 13th century (ca. 1001–1300); the Late Middle Ages was the period generally comprising the 14th and 15th centuries (ca. 1301–1500). Marette’s survey covers the 12th to the 16th century and thus her use of the term the ‘Middle Ages’ does not fully reflect current definitions. The editors have added a large number of new notes (prefaced by Editors’ note) and updated references in order to bring the text up to date to make available the latest research within the field to readers of this online version as a guide to the state-of-the-art studies into understanding panel paintings as well as wood anatomy and structural treatments.
The emphasised words in the translated text are those indicated by Marette. This approach was adopted by the editors to remain true to her text, where possible. Equally the word ‘we’ in the text, which is retained throughout, refers to Marette herself, and does not therefore represent the current knowledge of the present editors. While some inconsistencies are charming ‒ and have been kept in many places ‒ new notes have been added to provide guidance. We have only inserted full notes in the text when Marette’s information has proved to be incorrect in the light of current knowledge.
In addition, Marette’s references to texts by Theophilus Presbyter (fl. ca. 1070–1125) and Cennino d'Andrea Cennini (ca. 1370–ca. 1440) have also been updated with the most recent English translations. Dates and artists’ names have been inserted where the individuals could be traced but in some cases the information or spelling was too ambiguous to resolve a reference.
High-quality scans of the black and white illustrations and their captions are included and form a strong visual component. A few of the illustrations and line drawings from the original publication have been substituted or complemented with recent images or drawings to enhance the understanding of the text.
While the science of dendrochronology and radiography are now considered key elements of current methodology in panel painting research, these techniques were not considered by Marette. She stated that from her research she could show that artists painted on local wood wherever they were active in Europe. However, dendrochronology has since called this into question, especially in the case of Flemish and North German painters, for whom large quantities of oak for panel supports were imported from the Baltic region. In defence of Marette, it should be recalled that in 1961 dendrochronology was not yet an established field of research.
At the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels, the first recourse to the analysis of tree rings dates back to the start of the 1960s, a period when the discipline was as yet undeveloped in the domain of cultural heritage in Europe. We owe this forward-looking initiative to the agricultural engineer and chemist René Lefève, who joined KIK-IRPA in 1946 and became director of the Laboratories Department in 1968. A specialist in organic materials, it was while working on the study of wooden painting supports of Dirk Bouts in 1959 that he predicted the utility of this method for research in art history. He perceived from that time the authoritative contributions of dendrochronology, not only for dating, but also for establishing the relationship between historically linked pieces, such as the wings of a dismantled altarpiece or pairs of portraits separated over time. Where radiography is concerned, Marette might simply not have had access to this technique, despite its use at the time in American and European institutions, including the Musée du Louvre.
References and suggested further reading from the editors have been combined with the original bibliography, addenda and errata to provide an up-to-date revised and extended bibliography, which is fully searchable.
Panel Paintings Initiative bibliography
It should be noted that thanks to the Getty Panel Paintings Initiative, a searchable bibliography, encompassing literature on various aspects of the structural stabilisation of painted panels is now available and can be consulted at http://aata.getty.edu/Home. It is international in scope and includes published as well as selected unpublished literature. This resource was developed in part with the support of a Getty Foundation grant to the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and was compiled by the paintings conservator Anne Haack Christensen, currently a PhD student at CATS.
Further related material, such as conference proceedings, symposium videos, articles etc., can be found at: www.getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/education/panelpaintings/panelpaintings_publications.html
Jørgen Wadum, Christina Currie, Noëlle Streeton, Jean-Albert Glatigny and Nicole Goetghebeur
1 Based on a synopsis of Sulzberger 1961: 14–20.