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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Studying Impressionist Technique at the Musee d’Orsay

Summary: The use of a digital camera with telephoto capabilities can reveal minute details on works of art and provide a window to understanding the techniques artists use when creating paintings.  Paintings in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris supply an opportunity to capture amazing images of Impressionist works of art.

Combining technology with the study of works of art is not new.  The scientific study of art materials over the last few decades has uncovered a tremendous amount of information about works of art. Information that has laid hidden beneath the surface of paintings has been revealed. It took the marriage of material science with art history/conservation to fuel many amazing discoveries.

Microscopy was the original foundation and source of much of the information uncovered about works of art.  It was a fundamental part of a conservator’s education. Removing very small particles of paint from artworks provided a visual guide for how an artist created the layers of a painting. Viewing a microscopic cross-section of a painting looks like a geological formation.  From the ground layer upward to the surface varnish, a microscopist could use a variety of techniques to tease information about the pigments used by an artist and how the painting was executed.

Later, a more sophisticated analytical technique that combined scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-rays could identify the chemical signature of materials in a sample.  Further, a host of analytical instruments can yield the composition of various surface coatings and media. The presence of protein, tree gums, and hydrocarbons all give up their secrets to curious scientists studying works of art.

More recently, the field of imaging has taken art analysis to new heights.  The term multi-spectral imaging once was common in the remote sensing community.  An example of this is satellites in orbit that can look down on Earth and use visual imaging subdivided by spectral wavelengths to determine what crops were growing and how they were thriving because plant materials give off specific wavelengths of energy that a multi-spectral detector can register and interpret.

Human beings with normal vision perceive the energy wavelengths of visible light. From violet on one end of the spectrum to red on the other, these wavelengths form the range of colors we observe.  Wavelengths, before we see the color violet in the spectrum, contain ultraviolet energy.  Right after red color energy ends, infrared wavelengths begin.  Much of the knowledge gained about the composition and underlying makeup of paintings has come from those who study both broad and narrow wavelengths of infrared energy transmission.

Since we as visitors are unable to bring the above-discussed technology with us when we go to a museum due to both the sheer cost and size of the equipment and the inability to use it during visiting hours, we have to settle for a more common but frequently used technology.

We are accustomed to seeing hordes of visitors taking smartphone photos of works of art.  Most seek mere souvenirs of their visit and reminders of what they came to see.  I am always amused by what a visitor gets out of taking an image at a severely raking angle of a row of paintings on a gallery wall.  Little of the images in paintings are recognizable as they tend to look like thin slivers with the sides of the frame blocking much of the view of the artwork. But to each his own.

My approach is a bit different.  It is an offshoot of a technique that several National Gallery of Art colleagues used when observing works of art in exhibition galleries.  They utilized mono telescopes to view artwork extremely up close. Far less obtrusive than bringing a pair of binoculars into a museum setting and frankly, a lot less dorky looking.  However, these mono telescopes are rather expensive and not necessary for the casual observer.  But who says anything about being casual when trying to understand how an artist painted a work of art?

I use a digital camera and activate the telephoto lens to shoot images that provide very close-up details of the surface of a painting.  One gets far more information from this method as opposed to getting up close to a painting. Plus, it avoids the embarrassment of having a gallery guard scold you for being too close to a painting, or worse than that, of being escorted out of the museum for continuing to violate the safety rules.

On our visit to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the opportunity to use this telephoto technique provided some amazing images of Impressionist works of art.  In one room a group of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings (1892-18943) captured at various times of day illustrated how light changes the surface appearance of the façade of the cathedral.  It was a treat to see so many of Monet’s cathedral images hanging next to each other.

In the detail of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral painting illustrated in this essay, I was struck by the relationship between the colors that were applied and the texture of the brushstrokes. One tends to think of laying down paint somewhat in the direction of the object being depicted.  A vertical column is painted mostly with a vertical brushstroke.  A windowsill is rendered with horizontal strokes. That does not appear to be the case at all with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings. 

The paint is applied extremely thickly.  Even the term “extremely thickly” falls short of how Monet built up the surface of the painting. Further, the strokes curve in ways that do not follow the lines of the architecture in the composition. Broad swipes of color lay next to small strokes of thick single and multicolor passages. Observing this suggests that Monet applied paint, stopped to observe the subject along with what was applied, returned to apply more paint to the same area, observed again, and then came back again with another application of large and small strokes of color. Some colors are mixed tints and tones. A few strokes appear to be straight, unmixed pigment out of the tube.

The brushes used appear to be stiff, leaving pronounced trails of hills and valleys in the paint. A few loose, broken bristles are embedded in the thick paint. The final effect creates a combination of seeing both color and texture forming a shivering, glistening surface.  In my opinion, it is no wonder that Impressionist painters avoided the use of varnish.  Any hint of gloss would have killed the effect of the undulated surface that reflects light in multiple directions.

Overall, what I gleaned from both being in the presence of the painting and later in pondering the telephoto image of Rouen Cathedral is that Monet practiced a pattern of applying paint, evaluating it as it relates to the entire work, changing colors and strokes over and over again laying on paint atop paint until he was satisfied with the unity of the color, composition and feeling transmitted to the viewer.

It is easy to think that the Rouen Cathedral series is merely painting the same scene at different times of the day by squinting at the subject and then applying paint with a broad color and value pattern that lacks any detail.  Looking at the painting up close and seeing the application of paint brings a greater understanding of the piece. The complexity of the paint strokes indicates that capturing the essence of the subject is dependent on small subtle applications of paint that ironically look haphazardly placed and in simple terms looks “messy.”  A summary evaluation of the work suggests it is a form of abstract art, but in reality, elements in the piece are rendered in painstaking detail that takes every plane of the surface of the subject and depicts it in just the right hue and value.

Syntax of Color

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1 Comment

Dec 20, 2023

Great essay! Very interesting, I learned a lot about the artist's technique that was new to me.

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