Hidden layers in brief
- In SMK’s conservation department we’ve restored several L.A. Ring paintings, among them The Artist's Wife from 1897
- Ring’s use of materials and his techniques have been investigated in a number of the restored works
- The technical examinations have brought several surprising things to light and given us a unique insight into his characteristic and very personal way of painting
- This article is written by the conservators Pauline Lehmann Banke and Anne Haack Christensen
Layer upon layer
There’s a lot to learn about L.A. Ring’s painting technique by just looking at the painting with the naked eye at an exhibition. A mark of his technique is the way that he almost finishes the painting's background, e.g. of a room or a landscape, before he then places a figure or another object in the foreground. It sometimes looks like it’s floating without real contact with the room or the landscape. In other paintings, the brushstrokes of the background are still visible through the figure in front.
There are several examples of this in the painting The Artist's Wife. A detail of Sigrid’s dress and the blue banister is photographed in raking light. When a painting is photographed in raking light, the light source is placed to the side of the painting, so that details in the painting’s surface structure show up clearly. When you look at the painting from the side in normal lighting, the same things are visible, but less clearly. The detail with the dress seen in raking light shows how the structure of the brushstrokes from the underlying layer of colour in the banister shows through Sigrid’s cream-coloured dress.
A detail of Sigrid’s head has also been photographed in raking light. Here, the branches of the tree are clearly visible under the hair and face. When the same detail is lit symmetrically, a certain kind of cracks show up in the framed area, so-called drying cracks, which in this case lend us the possibility of seeing the underlying layer of paint without doing a test. Drying cracks usually appear when a painter adds a layer of paint on top of another layer which is not yet quite dry. Through the drying cracks in this area, the green colour from the leaves of the tree, painted by Ring before he started painting Sigrid, is clearly visible.
Ring has changed the painting several times along the way. By looking at the painting with the naked eye, you can see how the curtain’s tassels to the left were originally further to the right and that the hem of Sigrid’s dress has been prolonged a bit and that the shape of the collar of her dress is changed.
A blue sky behind the trees
Technical examinations can consist of many different kinds of analysis. Two that are frequently used are investigations of paint, so-called cross-sections and the use of X-ray to look through all the layers of a painting. We have used both methods in our examination of L.A. Ring’s painting The Artist's Wife.
Regarding a painting in raking light, combined with a closer look at drying cracks can give us information about the top layers of paint. By taking out tiny samples we have the possibility to dive even deeper into the painting and see all the layers it consists of in that specific area. We achieve insight in the order in which the layers have been painted and get a chance to investigate each layer’s pigment particles. A cross-section the size of the head of a pin, embedded into a plastic block, which has then been burnished and photographed through a microscope, shows how Ring has built up the painting by first adding a layer of primer (0), then a layer of blue (1), perhaps sky, which was subsequently covered by the many green and flowering trees, which are now at the top of the painting. Along the edges of the painting’s upper part, there are also traces of the blue colour, which indicates that this blue colour has been applied to a greater area, like for instance the sky. The green colours of the leaves can be seen as the layer second to the top (4). The top white layer of the sample comes from the pale flowers on the trees (5).
A hidden bench
When the painting was X-rayed in connection with its restoration, a garden bench appeared under the apple tree in the garden. After having finished painting the bench, Ring must have regretted it. Instead, he let an otherwise round-cut myrtle tree in the foreground grow bigger and more wild to cover the bench.
Once you know that there’s a bench under the myrtle’s branches and leaves, you can see traces of it yourself by looking carefully at the painting. As in Sigrid’s hair, you can see drying cracks of the exact same shape as the garden bench in the X-ray.
Did you know?
Using X-ray on another work by L.A. Ring, The Artist's Wife and Children in an Interieur from 1904, which is owned by the Prime Minister’s Office, Sigrid Ring can be seen standing in the top right corner, just as she stands in The Artist's Wife. Why would Ring place the other painting in the background? Did it in fact stand or hang in front of the door to the sunroom? Or did Ring use it as a symbolic play with the wife and children in the painting’s foreground? Or is it part of an entirely different composition? The questions are out there, and can perhaps be answered by digging into the L.A. Ring literature, as well as letters, photographs and other records from the time.