A conservator examines an old, unsolved mystery about the creation of Willumsen’s A Mountain Climber
Willumsen’s technique in brief
- Willumsen was very preoccupied with materials and techniques and experimented with his own mixes of pigments and primers
- During the work with the first version of A Mountain Climber, Willumsen recalls that the paint started cracking due to a poor quality primer, so that he had to start over with a new canvas
- When he set out to paint the second version of the motif in 1912, he explained how he used the old, once discarded, canvas
- However, conservation technical examinations haven’t shown any signs of poor primers on the 1912 version, so perhaps his recollection is incorrect?
- A conservator has looked into the matter and has traced up another version of A Mountain Climber, which could be the one Willumsen had problems with
Two Mountain Climbers
The second version of A Mountain Climber from 1912 was painted out of necessity, if Willumsen’s own account of the painting’s origin is to be believed. When manufacturer G.A. Hagemann who owned the first completed version of the painting from 1904 said no to lending it to a tour of the US, “I made a quick decision and finished the canvas from 1902,” as Willumsen recounts in a newspaper column many years later. Here, he explained that he re-used an incomplete version of the painting, which was rejected because of his dissatisfaction with the priming of the canvas.
In letters from 1902 to his future wife Edith Wessel, who’s the woman in the painting, he vents his frustration with the time and expenses wasted on the painting, which had cracked all over during the drying process. The recipe for primer, which Willumsen had used, contained casein and zinc white and it’s clear from one of the letters that he had high expectations to this “chemically correct process," as he wrote. However, the experiment ended in frustration and after a few unsuccessful attempts with this process, he wrote to Edith, “I’ve now bought a normal piece of canvas to avoid further problems.” And the recipe for the faulty primer, which came from a French paint techniques manual by J.-G. Vibert, was crossed out and an angry note was added in the margin: “Useless!”
A spurious recollection?
That then, was Willumsen’s recollection of the trouble with the creation of A Mountain Climber. But if you take a closer look at the two versions, something is not quite right. The painting from 1912, which, according to Willumsen, is a completion of the rejected canvas with the faulty priming from 1902, isn’t as cracked as all that. When looking at a cross section of the 1912 painting in the microscope, you can see that the ingredients of the primer don’t correspond with the recipe from Willumsen’s French manual. Instead, it’s a certain type of 2-layered primer, which Willumsen used in several different versions on many paintings over the years.
A third Mountain Climber
If A Mountain Climber from 1912 isn’t the version which was rejected the first time round, then what happened to that painting? The answer, perhaps, can be found in a half-length portrait of the Mountain Climber, which was owned by one of Willumsen’s old friends, Alice Bloch. This unfinished fragment, dated 1902 in the lower lefthand corner, seems to have been cut from a much larger canvas. This is evident from the fact that the canvas is painted across the edges and the back of the stretcher. Besides, the signature in an ultramarine blue, stands out, as this colour isn’t used in the painting at all. This could indicate that the painting had been given a new signature instead of the original, which would have been cut off when the painting was cropped. Maybe the cracks that so annoyed Willumsen, were mainly in the lower part of the canvas, so that it has seemed meaningful to save the remaining part?
Based on these observations, I work with a thesis that this half-length portrait is all that’s left of the rejected painting from Willumsen’s first attempt. But to confirm this thesis, a full-scale conservation technical investigation of the painting is necessary.
So, the conclusion must be that Willumsen’s recollection is spurious. At this particular time in Willumsens life, this may not be as strange as it sounds. He painted both versions of A Mountain Climber in a period when he was extremely preoccupied with technique. He experimented with his materials and tried endless paints and primers in his painting, sometimes based on what he believed to be the techniques of the old masters. The many attempts he made, and his comprehensive collection of colour samples and technical notes, bear witness to his striving for full insight in his materials and full control of the creation process in every detail.
Ironically, this has often led to problems with the conservation of Willumsen’s paintings and several of them had to go to the conservator while Willumsen was still alive. Something therefore indicates that he realised the unfortunate outcomes of some of his experiments. At any rate, in his later days, he gave up trying to find new material expressions for his ideas. Instead, throughout the last 30 years of his long career as an artist, he resorted to a much more traditional work method with conventional techniques. However, he remained very conscious of the quality of materials and would send indignant notes to suppliers if he was dissatisfied with their goods.
Opposition to academic method
Throughout his entire life as an artist, Willumsen felt himself in opposition to the academic way of teaching and working. Nevertheless, his own work was marked by great discipline and methodology. The creation of a work happened according to a thoroughly choreographed procedure, described here by himself in his memoirs:
“After having done all the preparations for a work, in the form of composition sketches, studies, etc., and I believe that I know everything that’s necessary to paint the picture, I paint a preliminary picture, usually full size, entirely out of my head. That’s the kind of preliminary work I like to call 'the dress rehearsal.' This shows me if I’m capable of painting the picture with the knowledge I’ve collected by means of my studies or if I need to do more."
In Willumsen’s notebooks, this method can be studied in detail around the creation of several of his works. And it must be stated, that, in spite of his distinct resentment against the academic, his own work methods were in fact strikingly academic.
A time of experimentation
Willumsen’s attitude to the technical side of painting was influenced by several trends, typical of his time: The English Arts and Crafts movement’s view of the artist as an artisan, a general interest in the work methods of earlier times’ masters, and the special relationship that the symbolists had to their material or to the use of material in art.
In this sense, he was by no means an isolated figure. The decades around the turn of the century were a time of renewed exploration into the technical possibilities in painting. Also, the choice of artist materials available had formally exploded with a literal jungle of new industrial paints and primers, which were aggressively marketed by manufacturers. Many of the masters of the time acquired some dearly bought experiences when trying to find their way in this wilderness. Vincent van Gogh is probably the most famous example of an artist, who was vexed by using paints that were unstable and of poor quality, as it is described in the conservation technical literature about his work and in several of his letters to his brother Theo from the 1880s.
Expression rather than stability
Although Willumsen was very preoccupied with the durability of his paints, he would still use a less stable paint if it had other qualities, which he valued. In A Mountain Climber you can see that he has used the plant colour madder lake in the mix for the red colour of the cheek. In ultraviolet light, the brushstroke shines with a characteristic red fluorescence. Willumsen must have had a special fondness for madder lake, although he was aware of its limited durability, because he kept using it for years and years.
- J.F. Willumsen: A Mountain Climber, 1912 > Read more about Willumsen's monumental painting of his wife Edith as a mountain climber
- J.F. Willumsen 1863-1958 > Willumsen's characteristically monumental style with intense colours and blinding light effects made him a controversial figure on the contemporary Danish art scene
- Hidden layers in Ring’s painting > Conservation technical examinations of the paintings of L.A. Ring reveal hidden layers and motifs beneath the surface