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Revealing the Secrets of a Master Flower Painter

Two paintings by the German-Dutch flower and still-life painter Abraham Mignon (1640-1679) were examined in great detail at the Conservation Department of the National Gallery of Denmark during preparations for the exhibition Flowers and World Views, which opens in spring 2013. The artistic quality of Mignon’s meticulously detailed works had disappeared under thick layers of yellowed varnish and discoloured overpaint. This project was an opportunity to remove the old restorations in order to reveal the virtuosity of Mignon’s works.

Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Breakfast Piece, KMS2083, during varnish removal

Mignon's Oysters, Fruit and a Wineglass on a Stone Table, also known as Breakfast Piece. The painting is shown during removal of the old, discoloured varnish.

Detail of Mignon's A Garland of Flowers, showing the painting during cleaing of the degraded varnish.

The build-up of the Paint Layers

During the early stages of the painting process, Mignon applied underpaint on top of the wooden support and ground, consisting of different coloured regions, which blocked out the rough overall compostion. This was followed by localised monochrome layers of deadcolouring for the various compositional elements. These layers form a coarse base for the further application of paint and are, at the same time, an integral part of the painting itself.

Detail of Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Breakfast Piece, KMS2083, showing red deadcolouring beneath the taper

Abrasion to the right of the glowing taper reveals that a red base layer was used in this area.

With the help of different methods, the enigma of the preparatory layer was solved: for one thing, the preparation isn’t covered completely by the upper paint layers. Secondly, a higher magnification allows the detection and distinction of the preparatory layers by differences in colour temperature and in the occasional areas of paint loss. By combining a visible with an infrared picture (FCIR) the layers within the pictures could be differentiated. Through the comparison with the appearance of the painting in normal light, it is possible to see parts of the composition which were planned but then left out or altered.

 

007a Festoon - before treatment 007b Festoon - The generated IRFC image reveals the base layers of the festoon. Changes within the painting process are easy to detect.tif

Slide the arrow back and forth to view A Garland of Flowers in normal light and as a False-colour Infra-red (FCIR) Image, which reveals the underpaint of the garland.

Characteristics of Mignon’s painting technique

In the upper paint layers, gradations were achieved by blending and working paint wet-in-wet, as well as by building up successive layers wet-on-dry. Through the application of thin layers, a compact paint surface was obtained giving a sense of depth. The paint was applied thinly with highly liquid paint. Parts of the wet paint were scratched out to expose the paint layer underneath subsequently. After several areas had been executed, Mignon stroked the tacky paint layer with brushes to create an even smoother surface. The plasticity of all the highlights suggests the use of a thicker paint. Relatively dry paint was used very rarely for some highlights, where it was applied quickly in one brush stroke, giving an open paint texture.

Photomicrograph of roast chestnut in Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Breakfast Piece, KMS2083

Incorporated air bubbles in several layer parts are a hint for the low viscosity of Mignon’s paints resulting in extremely thin layers.

Resulting in a broken appearance, nearly-dry paint was used to create some of the highlights.

Revealing the underdrawing

Mignon must have had a well-defined vision of the composition, as it deviates only occasionally within the working process. The near-absence of corrections is surely a clue for the use of complex underdrawings, which were probably his guideline for further steps. In order to visualize the underdrawing, the paintings were exposed to the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation of infrared. The pictures show two different types of underdrawing.

Detail of infrared image of Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Flower Garland, KMS315

Infrared image of Garland... (detail): larger areas are covered with an evenly applied liquid medium.

Infrared image of Oysters... (detail): super-fine lines suggest the use of a metal pin.

Tusschenbloemen

The tusschenbloemen (flowers-in-between) are the final elements within the painting process, and fill out the composition. A group of berries in both paintings have been painted after the background was set up. The berries are a reproduced motif, which appears in different arrangements. It can be assumed that Mignon used templates or a model. Within his oeuvre the repetition of single and compiled image motifs can be seen quite often.

Detail of blackberries in the background of Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Breakfast Piece, KMS2083

Detail of blackberries as tusschenbloemen in Breakfast Piece.

Photomicrograph of similar blackberries as tusschenbloemen in A Garland of Flowers.

Artificial ageing

“It is weakness to think that faded flowers should please much less in a picture: […] such rubbish I did formerly admire; but as they only show the deformities of nature, I have no appetite to view them any more.” - Gerard de Lairesse, Den Blom Hof, 1614

Most of the flowers, fruits and items in Mignon’s paintings have been painted perfectly without any defects first. Contrary to de Lairesse’s taste, Mignon then added signs of deterioration onto the dried painting in a final step.

Detail of red flower in Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Flower Garland, KMS315

The flower was built upon a red circle for the base tonality. Perfectly shaped petals were defined by blocking out the background with paint. Another layer of dark paint defines the final appearance of the flower. The result is tattered flower petals.

In a last working step Mignon transformed the porcelain bowl into an everyday article by adding minor defects.

Traces of material-related ageing

Examinations with ultraviolet light revealed a technical phenomenon: the lemon’s appearance in the breakfast piece has optically changed due to discoloration of the unstable arsenic pigment Mignon used for some yellow parts. As the layer hasn’t disappeared physically, the intended structure can be divined on the basis of its fluorescence under ultraviolet light.

017a Picture of lemon rind after varnish removal 017b Breakfast piece - UV-image of lemon rind after varnish removal

Slide the arrow back and forth to view the lemon in normal and ultraviolet light, revealing the original shading which is now hard to see due to pigment degradation.

The restorer’s fallibility

The panels have both been restored at some point in the past. Until recently, greyish spots in the area of the prunted rummer drinking glass and the glass flute differed from the surrounding paint layer. It turned out that an abstract artistic effect carried out by the artist himself had been misinterpreted and overpainted by a restorer. These white points have been applied with a little stick in order to imitate the material’s brilliance. Now the overpaint has been removed and the painting is slightly closer to the state in which the artist intended for it to be seen.

Both paintings, as well as many more newly-restored flower paintings, can be seen as part of the exhibition Flowers and World Views.

Detail of glass with newly uncovered sparkles in Abraham Mignon (1640-79), Breakfast Piece, KMS2083

Newly-discovered sparkles on the glass, after the removal of the overpaint.

Written by
Kamila Marta Korbela
Paintings Conservation Intern

Photography by
Jakob Skou-Hansen & Riccardo Buccarella

Updated: 18.nov.2014
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