Sunday, 28 October 2012

Keeping up with Madame Perregaux: Sensation! The Art of Painting - Wallace Collection, London

*** update 27/11/2012

The next Sensation event will take place on 3rd January, 2013 and will be a seasonal celebration of the Christmas story with Bridget Crowley describing some paintings.  The link is here  .  Telephone the Wallace on 020 7563 9577 or email

*** end of update

24th October, 2012
The Wallace Collection holds these Sensation events from time to time and my first experience of one was on the subject of Illuminated Manuscripts, which opened a window in subjects I would have thought fairly inaccessible.   It sparked an interest in many related topics and how they are interconnected.   

On this occasion, we gathered in the front of the entrance lobby and were guided down to the workshop area by Edwina Mileham and Jocelyn Clarke (Jos).  Although the session was from 1pm to 5pm we are encouraged to bring sandwiches, with the Wallace providing tea, coffee, chocolate biscuits and shortbread. I had spoken to Edwina prior to the workshop and learned that we would be mixing paint and that aprons would be provided. 

Edwina briefly introduced The Wallace Collection and the French pictures in the collection, saying we would be studying two works:  a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun and a portrait by Jean-Baptiste Greuze.    Edwina also mentioned that Christoph Vogtherr, Director of the Collection, would be joining us to discuss art history in relation to the two pictures.

Vigee Le Brun’s portrait of Madame Perregaux is dated 1789 and has an interesting history, as does the painter herself.  Vigee Le Brun was the daughter of a painter and married into the art dealer trade, while keeping a position as a society painter of portraits.  She was well in with Marie Antoinette and had painted her in Vienna.  Vigee Le Brun had studied the techniques of the 17th Century artist Rubens and set out to paint a portrait with oil on wood rather than the follow the convention of her time, which was oil on canvas. 

The assembly of a wood panel had been quite a task of carpentry and in the time of Rubens the workshops of artists would have been full of workers engaged in carpentry, pigment preparation, manufacture of size, gesso and brushes.  All these steps were carried out by specialists of the time.  It was unusual, therefore, for a painting to be on wood as a cradle of 5 panels had to be assembled. 

The portrayal of the subject matter was also a bit of an anachronism.  Madame Perregaux is painted wearing Spanish costume of a century earlier, with predominantly black clothing set off with red highlights in the form of feathers in a hat and ribbons and piping on the dress.  White ruffs accentuate the face, and the body is framed with a curtain and a balustrade (probably not unlike the balustrade on the stairway in the Wallace Collection which came from the Banque de France).  The style of dress was familiar in the Spanish Netherlands or as part of Flemish Art. 

Jos described the painting of Madame Perregaux,  She is portrayed with a three quarter turning to the left of the painting.  Her left hand reaches towards curtains while her right hand holds on to a balustrade.  We had a discussion about the need for Vigee Le Brun to dress Madame Perregaux in a costume which was clearly of historic interest.  Christoph Vogtherr joined us and after finding where we had got to in the history of the painting, went on to describe the techniques used of the time. 

The Wallace Collection has had to relocate many of the paintings in the restoration programme of the Great Hall and we were given examples of how workshops and artists employed many skills in the production of a painting.  I hadn’t appreciated how long it took to make a painting in terms of allowing the oil to settle rather than dry out.  The number of layers in this painting is quite complex as the brush work involved in the drawing of the feathers and Madame’s hair is very fine.  We wondered about how often Madame would have actually sat for the painting.

Christoph then went on to introduce a painting by Greuze of Sophie Arnauld.  At first glance, this seemed very out of style until it was explained that the picture had been a sketch.  Artists in the 18th century would have made several sketches of their subject and it was important to get the face right in terms of the client’s wishes, with the other items such as the figure, dress and background being filled in at different times.  In the case of the Greuze painting, it had been bought and finished off years after Greuze.  On examination, the additions to this painting were removed revealing essentially the face of Sophie Arnauld without the conventional additions of the time. 

Christoph explained that much of the Wallace Collection has documentation regarding the sale documents and I asked how the Madame Perregaux came into the collection.  It turned out to have been sold by the family whose fortunes had declined and forced a sale.  Much of French art disappeared during the revolution and emerged in the sale rooms of the 19th century during the collecting period. 

Christoph also introduced the subject of different types of wood which were used in paintings.  Poplar wood is used in many Italian Renaissance paintings and in some cases has not aged well with considerable conservation interventions.  The northern European use of harder woods has made for more robust pictures, though painting surfaces can become abraded due to wear and tear of the wood through insect infestation, warping, lack of humidity control and temperature changes.  We were able to ask questions during Jos’s and Christoph’s explanations, and later in the workshop as they arose. 

We then had what I usually refer to as a Blue Peter moment where “something I prepared earlier” is passed round.  In this case it was a velvet hat with red plumes.  With little coaxing, I was able to model the said hat and pose in front of the picture itself for all to ‘see’. 
Professor Whitestick tries on a plumed velvet hat
thinking it was to do with the French Revolution! ;-)
We also passed round an intricate copy of the ruff worn by Madame Perregaux.  This has quite stiff (obviously starched) cotton with fine lace on the edges. 


Edwina had prepared an example of a wooden surface, with the cradle structure showing the supports for the panels to prevent the warping of the wood through age.  (Tennis rackets when made of wood were kept in a press or frame to prevent warping) The surface of the wood had to be treated with special materials in order to get a really flat surface.  We passed around this cradle and this gave us a sense of what actually goes on behind the apparent first layer of a picture that is the wood itself.

Examples of linen canvas were also passed around and the texture of some of these fabrics could show through the finished picture without preparation.  Linen had to be sized with proprietary size made of animal bones boiled to make a gelatine or even a basic glue. Samples of crystallised size were passed around and sniffed; not much of a smell if any was the consensus. 

Jos described the application of gesso and even gesso grosso (I am afraid two of the Scottish contingent let the side down with this). Gesso is commonly known as gypsum or calcium sulphate and is described as whitening though not itself a white pigment.  The use of gesso allows controlled application of paint rather than have the paint colour bleed into the wood itself.  Jos said that even today many artists take a lot of time in preparing their working surface long before the application of any oil paint.   Commercially bought canvases are often primed in advance.

Next, Edwina passed round paint in the form of a roll of colours - we were to mix a yellow ochre oil paint later – from samples she had got for us from L.Cornelissen & Son.  Jos went through a list of colours and sources which could have been around at the time of the painting by Vigee Le Brun. These included carmine from cochineal beetle, azurite, ochres or earths, copper based colours such as malachite, verdigris (a common name for a green pigment), Rose madder (Alizirin), lamp black, Prussian blue (discovered in the early 1700s), vermilion (made from mercury or cinnabar), lead and tin oxides. 

There was a side discussion on the use of cow urine in the preparation of some colours.  This practice continued with a well-known producer of photographic film keeping a herd of cows for that purpose.  As sizing a canvas involved applying gesso or animal glue to the empty canvas, often old pieces of parchment or vellum were boiled up, essentially producing gelatine.  At this point, discussion veered into gelatine production problems on account of mad cow disease and the use of gelatine in photographic film. 

Various brushes were handed round including some using string to bind the hog bristles to a wooden handle, and ferrule brushes where the hair is clamped with a metal ferrule to the handle.  We also used a glass muller to mix pigments in an oil film on a marble surface.  Describing a figure of 8, the pigment is evenly distributed into the linseed oil and can be gathered with a palette knife or even picked up with a brush.  We had great fun doing this with various consistencies, and using brushes we painted our own ‘wooden’ panels. 

Prof Whitestick wearing a straw hat is seated with a muller (feels like a 3 cm curling stone) on a board
 and holding a palette knife in his right hand
One of the group thought that for an artist to take all this care and preparation, it must have been terrifying using the first brush stroke on the surface, though of course we realised that in a workshop studio, the preparation would be done by the apprentices. 

In conclusion, we thoroughly enjoyed four hours of art history and learned so much by being in front of the pictures, trying to compare our reproduction with the original, listening to the description history and techniques of the time and passing around a model of Madame Perregaux’s hat with the feathers and the ruff.  In the workshop afterwards, we learned and were able to handle a lot more to do with the actual painting procedures of the time.  In this instance, the Wallace Collection not only gave an audio description but we had the real bonus of handling examples of the costume and trying out some of the painting and processing techniques.  This wasn’t just a case of what the painting is, but a good example of how the painting works with a bonus of what makes the painting work. 

Many thanks to Christoph, Edwina and Jos for an interesting afternoon.

Professor Whitestick standing outside the Mary Weston Studio
within the Wallace Collection



From a 1989 Wallace catalogue, Vigee Le Brun was said to have been “pleased with the likeness” in the Madame Perregaux portrait.  She was, however, dissatisfied with female dress of her own time and put all her efforts into making her paintings a little more ‘pittoresque’.  I had mentioned to Edwina about my visit to the Catherine the Great exhibition in Edinburgh during the summer and as Vigee Le Brun had spent sometime in St Petersburg, wondered if there was any mention of her in that catalogue.  Sure enough there was, I discovered when I got home. 
There was a painting titled “Daughters of the Emperor Paul I, the Grand Princesses Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna” dated 1796 (held in the State Hermitage Museum). However, according to the exhibition catalogue, Catherine the Great had not been impressed with the picture of her grandchildren, feeling that they looked like “pug dogs” or “repulsive little French peasant girls.” (p70)  Catherine ordered that the representation of the girls as “bacchantes” be removed, so that grapes were replaced with wreaths of flowers and bare arms were “concealed under their dresses.”  As the catalogue noted, Catherine the Great had rejected the baroque style at the start of her reign, and later also rejected any form of Sentimentalism and Romanticism.

Regarding the Greuze painting, the 1989 Wallace Catalogue states that “Cleaned by Lank in 1988 when overpainting in the lower area (summarily indicating the folds of a dress) was removed.”