Author Archives: Thomas Primeau

About Thomas Primeau

Thomas Primeau is the Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He received an M.A. in Art History from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in Paper Conservation from the State University College at Buffalo. His published research includes an exploration of the history and technology of hand-colored Renaissance prints, the engraving techniques of Martin Schongauer and his followers, and the printmaking methods of Henri Matisse.

BMA Voices: Le Violon d’Ingres

Man Ray. Le Violon d'Ingres. 1924. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from the Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection; and partial gift of George H. Dalsheimer, Baltimore, BMA 1988.435. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2014

Man Ray. Le Violon d’Ingres. 1924. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase with exchange funds from the Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection; and partial gift of George H. Dalsheimer, Baltimore, BMA 1988.435. © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2014

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

In an era where technology allows for the precise reproduction of images and even 3 dimensional objects, why are we still fascinated by the idea of original works of art? In a previous blog post on Albrecht Dürer’s “Ecce Homo,” I noted that woodcut printing, a process for making multiples of the same image, has existed in the West since the early 15th-century. Other posts on the 16th-century engraver Diana Mantuana and the 19th-century lithographer Honoré Daumier, described how subsequent advances in printing technology, revolutionized the visual environment as duplicated images became increasingly sophisticated and omnipresent. When, in the 19th century, optical and chemical experiments led to practical methods of photography, artists found a new way of recording the world and improved methods for creating, reproducing, and circulating pictures. Of course, the question of whether creating a photograph, an image made using a machine, required artistic talent has haunted the medium since its inception and throughout history photographers have continually defended their work as art.

The Philadelphia-born artist Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky) was perhaps responding to this challenge when he took a photograph of the model Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin), posed nude and seen from the back as a classic odalisque, and manipulated it in the darkroom to make it appear as if she had f- holes cut into her torso. The photograph is compelling in itself as it plays on the similarity between the woman’s silhouette and a musical instrument, but once one understands that it is titled Le Violon d’Ingres, it becomes a humorous and pointed critique on the history of art and traditional representations of women in painting. The photograph is both a homage to and parody on the French neo-classical artist J. A. D. Ingres (1780-1867) who painted romanticized Oriental scenes populated with voluptuous nudes. (The Walters Art Museum has several paintings by Ingres including Odalisque with Slave (1842) which is exactly the type of picture that Man Ray references with his photograph.) Knowing that Ingres was also an amateur violinist and that the expression “Ingres’ violin” was used colloquially to refer to one’s “hobby,” heightens the comedy and focuses attention on the unsettling sexuality of the photograph. More than just a punch-line though, the image questions long-established concepts of what constitutes a work of art and how we see the world in an age of rapidly evolving technologies and philosophies. Man Ray made several prints of the photograph, and it became more well know when it was published in the journal Littérature (June, 1924). Today the work has been so frequently reproduced that it is instantly recognized as an icon of Dada and Surrealist art from the early 20th century.

Verifying the authenticity of a photograph such as this can be complicated: the artist continued to make prints of Le Violon d’Ingres into the 1960s and, due to the high prices that Man Ray photographs command in the art market, forgers have attempted to pass off fakes to unsuspecting collectors. In 1998, the discovery of a large group of forged Man Ray prints attracted worldwide press coverage and prompted conservators to develop new methods for authenticating vintage photographs. The provenance or record of ownership for the BMA photograph indicates that it is one of the originals prints from 1924. However, in order to verify this, the museum collaborated with Paul Messier, a photographic materials conservator, and Walter Rantanen, a forensic specialist, to study the print. They examined the paper composition of the photograph and determined that it was made of all cotton and flax fibers. Significantly, this combination of paper fibers was typical of photographic papers made around 1924. By the late 1920s, manufacturers began incorporating wood pulp into the papers and by the 1930s photographic papers were made exclusively with wood pulps.

When a photograph such as this one is so well known, and can be very easily replicated, is there still much value to seeing an original print? I would argue that when we view an original object, in the medium that it was conceived of by the artist, we gain insights into the processes that inspired the artist. The work of art holds onto its past: it shows signs of how it was made and bears subtle marks of wear from age and handling. In the presence of the original, even a relatively recent photographic print, the viewer is able to make a direct and personal connection with the time of the artworks creation.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

BMA Voices: The politics of printmaking

Honoré Daumier. Transnonain Street, April 15th, 1834. 1834. Plate 24 from 'l'Association mensuelle'. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Blanche Adler Memorial Fund, BMA 1957.103

Honoré Daumier. Transnonain Street, April 15th, 1834. 1834. Plate 24 from ‘l’Association mensuelle’. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Blanche Adler Memorial Fund, BMA 1957.103

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

The early 19th century was a turbulent time, both politically and socially, for the citizens of post-revolutionary France. Advances in scientific and industrial technologies were changing the way people lived, worked, and communicated. An innovation in printing technology that had a significant impact on the politics and social lives of people at this time was the introduction of lithography, which allowed for the mass production and circulation of finely detailed images.

Lithography was developed in Germany around 1798 and was well established in France by 1818. Unlike earlier printing processes such as woodcut or engraving, lithography is a planographic process, meaning that the ink design is impressed on paper from a flat surface that has been chemically altered rather than from an incised, carved, or otherwise irregular surface. The process is based upon the physical incompatibility of oil and water. To make a lithograph, an artist draws with oil-based crayons and inks on the smooth porous surface of a limestone block. The stone is then sent to a printer who chemically prepares it in order to hold ink on the drawn lines and repel it in non-image areas. Printing a lithograph requires a special flat-bed press that forces the paper in contact with the inked stone at high, even pressure. One significant advantage that lithography had over other printing processes at the time was that nearly 3000 impressions could be made of each image.

A successfully printed lithograph conveys the line, texture, and immediacy of a chalk or crayon drawing and, in Paris at this time, no artist was more adept at using the process than Honoré Daumier (1808 -1879). Daumier was an expressive painter, as well as an accomplished sculptor. However, his most notable artistic achievements were his observant and exuberantly drafted lithographs, which were printed in the popular journals of the day. Throughout his career, Daumier created thousands of lithographs that affectionately satirized the domestic lives of French society; he also drew scathing caricatures that ridiculed the excesses and hypocrisies of government officials. In 1832, he was imprisoned and fined on the charge of “contempt for the King’s government” after publishing the lithograph Gargantua, which depicted King Louis-Philippe as a monstrous glutton devouring the wages of the working class.

Daumier’s most important lithograph was also his most somber, the print Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834, is neither whimsical nor sarcastic, rather, it is an unsettling illustration showing the aftermath of a brutal massacre in Paris. The atrocity occurred after rioters, protesting the suppression of a cloth workers revolt, confronted the National Guard. A regiment of soldiers, in search of a sniper, charged into the house at No. 12 Rue Transnonain and killed 11 innocent residents, including a child. Daumier’s portrayal of the incident is not an eye-witness account – the print was not published until months after the event – but a carefully composed and precisely drawn indictment on the cruelty of the military and the indifference of the monarchy for the lives of the public. He presents the senseless violence of the event through a solemn commemoration of the victims, imagining how they would have appeared as dawn broke on the scene. Highlighted in the foreground, a man in his blood-stained night shirt lies on the floor, legs splayed and his head bent awkwardly against his bed. He is framed by other bodies and blood spills from the head of a small child that somehow became trapped beneath him.

Daumier’s figures have presence, weight, and volume that he created through an advanced understanding of anatomy and control of light and shade in the drawing. Close examination of the print reveals that after Daumier drew his image in black crayon, he added texture and modulated highlights and shadows by scraping the surface of the lithographic stone with a needle or a knife. In this print – an image that would have been seen throughout Paris and is still preserved in many surviving impressions – Daumier’s masterful technique and humane sensibilities combined to produce one of the most powerful and compelling images of modern life.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: The Feast of the Gods. c. 1575.

Diana Scultori and After Giulio Romano. The Feast of the Gods. c. 1575, printed 1613. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Garrett Collection, BMA 1984.81.2632

Diana Scultori and After Giulio Romano. The Feast of the Gods. c. 1575, printed 1613. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Garrett Collection, BMA 1984.81.2632

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

The glories of Italian Renaissance painting, frescos by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Mantegna, and Romano, were created within the cloistered walls of churches and monasteries, and in aristocratic palaces and villas. Outside of a small audience who were privileged to view the paintings in situ, how was it that artists and connoisseurs from far away came to know and appreciate these great, immovable works of art? Occasionally, artists had the opportunity to travel and see things first hand; in the early 16th-century, Dürer made the long journey from Nuremberg to Italy where he saw works by Leonardo and traded drawings with Raphael, but the primary means of artistic exchange over distance was through finely made printed copies. Masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos were influential far outside of Rome because of a flourishing trade in engravings after his compositions.

One of the most talented and interesting engravers of the mid-16th-century was Diana Mantuana, also referred to as Diana Scultori. Though it was unusual at the time for a woman to acquire printmaking skills, for Diana the trade of engraving was a family business. Her father, Giovanni Battista Scultori was an accomplished draftsman and engraver who taught the craft to Diana and her brother Adamo. Engraving is a difficult and laborious medium as each line is incised into a copper plate using a fine-tipped tool known as a burin. This requires both strength and control in order to cut lines in metal that will appear to be as fluid and immediate as those of a pen drawing. Diana excelled at creating strongly engraved, yet finely detailed, elaborate compositions.

Diana’s engraving The Feast of the Gods is a condensed rendering of a group of 22 frescos depicting the story of Cupid and Psyche that Giulio Romano created for Federico II Gonzaga’s Palazzo del Te in Mantua around 1528. The murals illustrate the myth as told in Apuleius’s Metamorphosis: Cupid fell in love with the beautiful mortal Psyche, but the two were separated by the gods and Psyche was forced to undergo a long period of wandering and many trials before she was permitted to be reunited with her lover.

In reducing a lengthy narrative told through a cycle of monumental paintings down to a tabletop sized print, some creative editing was required. Rather than attempting to recreate the entire story, Diana selected scenes from the cycle that highlight the luxury of a celebratory spectacle as the gods prepare a banquet for Cupid and Psyche. The print captured the exuberance of the murals and allowed Diana to demonstrate her technical virtuosity. Her skill and control of the engraving medium is on full display as she depicts a sumptuous assembly of classical nude figures and a menagerie of exotic animals set within an expansive garden.

Another remarkable feature of Diana’s engraving is its scale; this is a large print, 44 inches long, and 15 inches high. The size of this engraving exceeded the papermaking and printmaking technology of the day so in order to create an engraving this long, Diana actually needed to engrave and print 3 plates, which were then pasted together. Prints from the Renaissance as large as this rarely survived as collectors often displayed them tacked or pasted onto walls. The BMA impression of the print also has suffered from aging and rough handling, however it was likely preserved because it was folded and tipped into a book for storage.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: Woodcuts, color and the experience of the visual arts

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series "The Large Passion". The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1943.32.271

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series “The Large Passion”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Alfred R. and Henry G. Riggs, in Memory of General Lawrason Riggs, BMA 1943.32.271

Thomas Primeau, Director of Conservation and Paper Conservator

The development of the woodcut in Europe during the early 15th century allowed for the mass production and circulation of religious images printed on paper. Most early woodcuts consisted of simply carved outlines that, when printed in dark ink, produced images of limited detail. In order to make these plain pictures more eye-catching and naturalistic, bright colors in the form of water-based paints were brushed on by hand. Trees in the landscape became more recognizable with green leaves, and emotions were more deeply stirred when the blood dripping off the wounds of Christ were painted in deep red.

Color was an important, if not essential, aspect of many woodcuts during the first century of printmaking, however, in the early 16th century Albrecht Dürer began creating woodcuts which were so carefully designed and intricately carved that they were considered complete as black lines grounded on white paper. Erasmus of Rotterdam, a noted humanist and Dürer’s contemporary, celebrated him as “the Apelles of our age” who “could express absolutely anything in monochrome, that is, with black lines only,” and warned that: “if you were to add color (to his prints), you would spoil the effect.” Indeed, most Dürer prints that survive to this day are preserved in black and white and it is commonly considered inappropriate if color was added to them. Still, the earlier tradition of painting woodcuts persisted on into Dürer’s day and beyond, demonstrating how sustaining the desire to see color is to the experience of the visual arts.

In 1511, Dürer published 11 large scale woodcuts depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. A key image from the series (below) depicts the moment when Jesus, having been scourged and then outfitted with a crown of thorns and a robe, is mockingly presented to the people of Jerusalem as the “King of the Jews.” In the uncolored impression above, the figures and the setting are rendered in fluid outlines given volume and texture with networks of finer lines and cross hatching. The horror of the moment is enhanced by deep shading that envelopes Christ and the mob standing before him. In coloring the print with a vibrant palette of bright blue, red, yellow, green and even gold and silver pigments, the image loses some of its moodiness, but the scene becomes more legible – the people in the crowd are easier to differentiate and the distant landscape comes into clearer view. The coloring also makes the image more visceral as the red paint forces the view to focus on the bleeding figure.

Dürer himself did not color this print, the paint was applied in a carefully controlled style that is more closely aligned with a tradition of manuscript illumination than the somewhat thinner brushwork found in Dürer’s watercolors, but it is likely that print was colored at a time close to Dürer’s lifetime. Chemical analysis of the paints used to color this woodcut indicate that the pigments were all appropriate for a 16th-century work of art, however one pigment, a deep blue cobalt-containing material known as smalt, was not in common use until after 1550. So although the print was colored early, it was illuminated several years after Dürer’s death, perhaps for a collector who wished to celebrate the great artist’s achievements by creating a uniquely enhanced print.

Which version do you prefer?

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series "The Large Passion". The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Charles W. Newhall III, and Todd Ruppert, Baltimore; and with exchange funds from Garrett Collection, and Gift of Theodore W. Strauel, Pound Ridge, New York, BMA 2000.91

Albrecht Dürer. Ecce Homo. c. 1498. From the series “The Large Passion”. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Charles W. Newhall III, and Todd Ruppert, Baltimore; and with exchange funds from Garrett Collection, and Gift of Theodore W. Strauel, Pound Ridge, New York, BMA 2000.91

For more information on history of hand-colored prints, see the BMA Exhibition catalogue: Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts. (2002)

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.