Veronese and friends: a technical examination of Nobleman between active and contemplative life


The evaluation of paintings relies on many approaches. Assessments and judgements are sometimes made, however, without direct observation and at other times without consideration of a work’s material content. This is often the case with European paintings in Australian collections. The following information is provided as an introductory description of the material content of, and technique used in, the painting Nobleman between active and contemplative life, which is attributed to Paolo Veronese and his studio (fig. 1).1For a survey of the critical assessment of this painting, see Ursula Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800, 3rd edn, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1973, pp. 159–60. This article draws on direct and microscopic examination, radiography, infra-red photography and the examination and analysis of cross-sections taken from the paint film. 

The frame 

The frame of the Nobleman is assembled from the stacking of four separate carved wooden strips. Two of the three larger decorative sections, the inner and outer, have water gilt surfaces, were carved to be their current lengths, and carry designs that are repeated on either side of their centres; both sections have been carved to integrate at the corners. The middle section may well have been cut from longer pre-carved lengths, since the motifs that join its corners have been added and one of the long sides has been awkwardly joined in the centre. The pattern is continuous and the surface water gilt. These larger carved sections of the frame are held together with metal screws. 

The innermost section is smaller, amounting to a slip. It carries a pea and sausage motif added on top of a flat. 

Partly because of its undisguisedly ‘assembled’ construction, the frame has a curious appearance, though stylistically it is not inappropriate to the painting. However, it cannot be considered an original fitting. 

The stretcher 

The painting is currently housed on a wooden stretcher with one horizontal and two vertical cross-bars. The corners are square mortise and tenon joints and the design offers good support to the canvas. The stretcher most likely dates from the last lining of the painting, which took place in the mid-nineteenth century (see below). 

The support 

The original support for the paint layer is a linen canvas of plain weave, with a thread count of around 10 per cm in the warp direction and 12 in the weft. A join runs horizontally through the canvas approximately 400 mm from the bottom. This gives a vertical dimension of around 940 mm for the upper half, perhaps indicating that some material has been removed from the top edge, since a common canvas width in the sixteenth century was a little over a metre.2See Joyce Plesters & Lorenzo Lazzarini, ‘Preliminary Observations on the Technique and Materials of Tintoretto’, in Conservation and Restoration of Pictorial Art, eds Norman Brommelle & Perry Smith, Butterworths, London, 1978, p. 12. 

The canvas has been lined, using a glue paste adhesive, onto a medium-weight linen canvas, so that a uniform margin of approximately 15 mm of unprimed lining canvas is exposed on all sides. This lining canvas, which is not necessarily the first, carries the stamp PREPARED BY ROBERSON & MILLER, 51 LONG ACRE, LONDON.3This address for Roberson & Miller occurs between 1828 and 1840. I am grateful to Ms Cathy Proudlove for permission to cite this information from her unpublished research on artist colourmen stamps. The original support finishes in an irregular line 20 to 40 mm from the stretcher edge on the left side. This section has been extended by means of a canvas infill. 

Although there are no margins remaining at either the top or bottom of the original canvas to permit attachment to a stretcher, on the left edge, and to a lesser extent the right edge, the limits of the original support are characterised by scalloping of the weave between holes or remnants of holes (fig. 2). The craquelure of the paint layer extends to the extremities of these edges but there is no evidence of a previous fold line in the canvas or paint. This suggests, particularly with the left edge, that we have the original edge of the canvas and paint layer and that the canvas was originally attached through its face onto the face of its stretching system, and not folded around its edge. The top and bottom edges show very slight indications of scalloping of the weave, and losses and fragmentation of the paint layer, perhaps associated with trimming of the canvas, are evident. As previously noted, the fact that a weave width of 1 metre was common in the sixteenth century would suggest that some material has been removed from the canvas – at least at the top – though the image does not suggest substantial cropping.   

The ground 

The ground layer has been identified in cross-section as containing calcium sulphate, but it appears as a rather yellow-brown crystalline mass. This suggests that the ground, which is bound with glue, has been saturated with the lining adhesive, so that the character of what would otherwise be a white layer has been changed. The use of a gesso layer in the preparation of canvas pictures carries over from the earlier tradition of preparing panel paintings, but gesso is by nature brittle and is prone to cracking on the flexible support. Gesso ground layers on fabric supports are nevertheless consistently noted in examinations of sixteenth-century Italian paintings.4See David Bull & Joyce Plesters, ‘The Feast of the Gods: Conservation, Examination and Interpretation’, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 40, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1990. See also Joyce Plesters’s series of articles on Tintoretto’s paintings in the National Gallery, London, in the National Gallery Technical Bulletin (vol. 3, 1979, pp. 3–24; vol. 4, 1980, pp. 32–48; vol. 8, 1984, pp. 24–35).

The underdrawing 

Neither infra-red photographs nor radiography have revealed extensive underdrawing. That which appears occurs in the stool on which the gentleman sits, the leg of the table, and to some extent the bodice of the woman on the left. Incised line work can also be discerned under this bodice, suggesting the form of a belt. 

The paint layer 

The most notable features of the paint layer are the numerous pentimenti and inconsistencies in handling. These are visible in part with the unaided eye but are more readily documented with infra-red photography (fig. 3) and radiography (fig. 4). 

Cross-sections have been made through a number of areas of the paint layer to allow observation of the layer structure and pigment content. Though the layering is complex, microscopic examination suggests that some of the forms have been blocked in using the grey-brown layer that predominates in the background, and then defined by means of the blue layer. In some instances the painting was brought to a reasonably complete state, as in the head of the female at the right, before the blue background was brushed in – in other instances, as in the central falconer, we can observe that the shape was brought to a level of finish, then defined by the background, and then detailed again over the blue (fig. 5). The falconer’s bird may have been consciously left undetailed or may reflect, in part, the unfinished state of the painting, though the bird’s form has been altered. This working and reworking of the image is complicated by the inconsistency of the brushwork. This is most noticeable in the treatment of the extremities of the figures and most graphically represented in the handling of the yellow garments of the falconer and the groom (figs 6 and 7). 

The cross-sections examined have not shown evidence of dirt or traces of resin between paint layers, suggesting a relatively continuous development of the image. The white columns at the right of the painting are not a residue of unfinished work but are the last layer of paint to be put in place (fig. 8). 

For additional observations, see the notes accompanying figures 9, 10 and 11. 

A note on the blue background 

The background of this painting is composed of a mixture of azurite and lead white (fig. 12).5The azurite appears in cross-section as characteristic of the mineral form. The presence of elemental copper was determined by EDX analysis in a Cam Scan SEM. This field of colour, originally blue but now green owing to accumulated layers of discoloured varnish and extensive deteriorated retouching, is of considerable interest. It carries the most extensive damage and retouching in the painting. Tiny losses at the intersections of mechanical cracks, along with surface abrasions, occur throughout the paint layer. However, extensive repair work is only evident in the sky. Particularly when this area of the painting is viewed under low-power magnification, widespread abrasion and paint loss is apparent, often resulting in the exposure of the fibres of the support. The widespread retouching of the sky to compensate for this is now pale khaki in colour.6The presence of elemental zinc in the retouching of the sky suggests that this retouching could date from the time of the lining of the original canvas. Zinc white was not in common use until the first half of the nineteenth century. Disturbing alterations to the colour relationships in the painting have been caused by this discolouration of the background.

Azurite, though not as expensive as ultramarine, was nevertheless not a cheap pigment in the sixteenth century. The field of azurite in this painting must offer some clue to the work’s origin. The use of this pigment shows at least a considerable and unusual commitment of resources to the early stages of a work that was never to be satisfactorily resolved.7In her report on the examination of Veronese’s ‘Four Allegories of Love’ in the National Gallery, London, Joyce Plesters notes that azurite was used only sparingly, in details. The pigment used for the skies was smalt. Though these paintings are of a larger scale and were presumably created for a different purpose to that of the Nobleman, the contrast in approach should be noted. I am grateful to the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, London, for making available Joyce Plesters’s unpublished report: ‘Notes and Comments on Results of Technical Examinations and Analyses Carried out on Nos. 1318, 1324, 1325 and 1326, Paolo Veronese, Four Allegories of Love’, 1985. Of additional interest is whether Veronese used glue as the medium for the blue pigments. The level of damage in the blue background, and initial observations of the cross-section with ultraviolet illumination, suggest a binder which varies from that used in other areas of the paint layer and may contain the proteinaceous material to be expected in an animal glue.8On this question, Joyce Plesters cites the seventeenth-century writer Marco Boschini, who claimed that Veronese used an animal glue as the medium for his blues, and a later critic, Filippo Baldinucci, who stated that because the blues were bound in glue they were removed in cleaning. Analysis of the medium used in three of the ‘Allegories’ in the London National Gallery has revealed only the use of linseed and walnut oils (Plesters, ‘Notes and Comments’). The determination of the presence of protein in samples of the blue from the Nobleman is being pursued with further analysis. It is acknowledged that a conclusive result is difficult to imagine, given the capacity of the lining adhesive to penetrate the paint layers above. It is worth noting that the area of the blue background that sits on top of the dark layer of architecture (where the medium appears to be oil), shows comparatively little damage in contrast to the areas where the blue has been applied directly to the ground. Is the damage to the blue layer the result of the sensitivity of the paint, as well as the ground, to the moisture in the glue used in the lining process? 

Concluding comments 

This study cannot be considered exhaustive and lacks the insights to be gained from treatment of the painting, particularly cleaning. Several points of certainty do, however, emerge: 

1           The most recent lining of the painting dates from the mid-nineteenth century; 

2           Both the mineral azurite and lead tin yellow pigments that occur in the painting occur regularly in Venetian paintings of the sixteenth century and are rarely found in European paintings after the middle of the eighteenth century;9The presence of lead tin yellow in the samples shown in figures 5 and 8 was initially suggested by EDX analysis. Confirmation of the presence of both lead tin yellow types, I and II, is being pursued by X-ray diffraction analysis. I am grateful to Mr Harold Wrobel of the State Forensic Laboratories for EDX analysis of the samples under study. 

3          The complexity in the development of the image precludes notions of it being a copy or a simple pastiche. 

If we accept, at least in part, the hand of Paolo Veronese in the painting, what does this study add to our knowledge of the work? As Beverly Brown points out, our view of what constitutes a ‘Veronese’ at the end of the twentieth century is much altered from that of the sixteenth-century patron.10Beverly Brown, ‘Replication and the Art of Veronese’, in Studies in the History of Art, vol. 20, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1989, p. 121. The painting before us presents a mixture of skilled and clumsy brushwork, of expensive materials and awkward anatomy. There is a sense of struggle with the detailing of the work. But the question is, whose struggle was this? Could so much alteration be the work of studio assistants? In what context was this painting begun and in what context was it finished? 

More thorough study of works such as this – works that contrast with an artist’s more successful pictures – is to be encouraged. Paintings such as Nobleman between active and contemplative life should be a resource for expanding our understanding of the painter and the studio, but are too often the subject of simple appraisal. 

John Payne, Painting Conservator, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1992).

Notes 

1          For a survey of the critical assessment of this painting, see Ursula Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800, 3rd edn, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1973, pp. 159–60. 

2          See Joyce Plesters & Lorenzo Lazzarini, ‘Preliminary Observations on the Technique and Materials of Tintoretto’, in Conservation and Restoration of Pictorial Art, eds Norman Brommelle & Perry Smith, Butterworths, London, 1978, p. 12. 

3          This address for Roberson & Miller occurs between 1828 and 1840. I am grateful to Ms Cathy Proudlove for permission to cite this information from her unpublished research on artist colourmen stamps. 

4          See David Bull & Joyce Plesters, ‘The Feast of the Gods: Conservation, Examination and Interpretation’, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 40, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1990. See also Joyce Plesters’s series of articles on Tintoretto’s paintings in the National Gallery, London, in the National Gallery Technical Bulletin (vol. 3, 1979, pp. 3–24; vol. 4, 1980, pp. 32–48; vol. 8, 1984, pp. 24–35). 

5          The azurite appears in cross-section as characteristic of the mineral form. The presence of elemental copper was determined by EDX analysis in a Cam Scan SEM. 

6          The presence of elemental zinc in the retouching of the sky suggests that this retouching could date from the time of the lining of the original canvas. Zinc white was not in common use until the first half of the nineteenth century. 

7          In her report on the examination of Veronese’s ‘Four Allegories of Love’ in the National Gallery, London, Joyce Plesters notes that azurite was used only sparingly, in details. The pigment used for the skies was smalt. Though these paintings are of a larger scale and were presumably created for a different purpose to that of the Nobleman, the contrast in approach should be noted. I am grateful to the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, London, for making available Joyce Plesters’s unpublished report: ‘Notes and Comments on Results of Technical Examinations and Analyses Carried out on Nos. 1318, 1324, 1325 and 1326, Paolo Veronese, Four Allegories of Love’, 1985. 

8          On this question, Joyce Plesters cites the seventeenth-century writer Marco Boschini, who claimed that Veronese used an animal glue as the medium for his blues, and a later critic, Filippo Baldinucci, who stated that because the blues were bound in glue they were removed in cleaning. Analysis of the medium used in three of the ‘Allegories’ in the London National Gallery has revealed only the use of linseed and walnut oils (Plesters, ‘Notes and Comments’). The determination of the presence of protein in samples of the blue from the Nobleman is being pursued with further analysis. It is acknowledged that a conclusive result is difficult to imagine, given the capacity of the lining adhesive to penetrate the paint layers above. 

9          The presence of lead tin yellow in the samples shown in figures 5 and 8 was initially suggested by EDX analysis. Confirmation of the presence of both lead tin yellow types, I and II, is being pursued by X-ray diffraction analysis. I am grateful to Mr Harold Wrobel of the State Forensic Laboratories for EDX analysis of the samples under study. 

10        Beverly Brown, ‘Replication and the Art of Veronese’, in Studies in the History of Art, vol. 20, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 1989, p. 121.