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Thursday, May 16 • 9:00am - 9:30am
(Paintings) Shimmering Still Life: Exploring Cornelis de Heem's Remarkable Use of Orpiment from his Period in The Hague

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In the seventeenth century, the arsenic sulfide pigment orpiment had a notorious reputation in contemporary sources for its bad handling qualities, poor lightfastness, toxicity, and instability when used with lead- or copper-containing pigments. Therefore, it was typically used as a localized final layer. In still life painting, this meant that the pigment was usually limited to the final layers of lemons and yellow roses. However, a recent treatment and technical study of the painting Fruit Still Life by Cornelis de Heem (1631-1695) at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis revealed this was not always the case. Through close inspection, cross-section microscopy, SEM-EDX, and MA-XRF scanning, several distinctive technical markers, including an exceptional use of orpiment, were discovered for this artist. Using the findings of this study and what is known about still life painting practice in 17th-century Netherlands, an attempt will be made to fit this painting within a larger context. Unlike his contemporaries, de Heem used this pigment despite its many undesirable qualities. This included mixing with lead white in the wings of a white butterfly, verditer in the leaves, and iron oxides and vermilion in grape stems. He also used it in details in the painting, such as in the delicate wheat stalks. This shimmering yellow pigment was seen all over the surface of the painting and confirmed by MA-XRF scanning. Examination of paintings by de Heem from other collections confirmed this atypical use of orpiment is throughout his oeuvre. It is very unusual compared to other flower still life artists, like his well-known father and teacher, Jan Davidsz. de Heem, who indeed only made limited use of the pigment. The reasons why Cornelis de Heem might have used this pigment extensively will be considered. De Heem must have painted this work during his period in The Hague, between 1676 and 1690. During the technical study, a cross-section revealed the ground contained distinctive, translucent, silica particles surrounded by a ring of bright orange clay. This material was previously identified in the eleven paintings of the cycle by Giovanni Pellegrini made for the Mauritshuis’s Golden Room, as well as several other paintings in the museum’s collection. From art historical context, each painting identified with this type of ground is known to have been painted in The Hague, which points to a local mineral source for these grounds. Due to the presence of a similar ground in the de Heem, it can be included in this group, thus narrowing down the dates of the work’s creation to those when he lived in The Hague. This ground can function as a possible marker for this period of his career and could inform further studies of his other undated paintings. The discovery of de Heem’s unusual use of orpiment and the painting’s distinctive ground made for a meaningful study of this artist’s painting technique. Not only is this important for the documentation of paintings by this artist, but it also challenges the idea that 17th-century Northern painters were always made limited use of orpiment.

avatar for Ellen Nigro

Ellen Nigro

Intern in the Conservation of Easel Paintings, Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge
Ellen Nigro earned her M.S. in Art Conservation with a specialization in paintings in 2018 from the Winterthur/University of Delaware program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC). Her final year of graduate study included an 11-month internship at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis where... Read More →

avatar for Dr. Annelies van Loon

Dr. Annelies van Loon

Paintings Research Scientist, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis and Rijksmuseum
Annelies van Loon is a paintings research scientist both at the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis (The Hague). She received a master's degree in chemistry, a post-doctoral diploma in the conservation of easel paintings from the Limburg Conservation... Read More →
avatar for Dr. Ralph Haswell

Dr. Ralph Haswell

Research Scientist, Shell Global Solutions International B.V.
Ralph Haswell earned his PhD in Physics from the University of Surrey in 1991 and since then he has worked for Shell in Amsterdam on the microstructural characterization of solids. His particular area of expertise is electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy of... Read More →
avatar for Sabrina Meloni

Sabrina Meloni

Paintings Conservator, Royal Picture Gallery Mauristhuis
Sabrina is a paintings conservator working in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis. She has a master’s degree in Art History from Leiden University, where she specialized in Italian Renaissance Art, with a master thesis about the origin of oil painting in 15th-century Florence... Read More →

Thursday May 16, 2019 9:00am - 9:30am EDT
Salon B2, Uncas Ballroom
  Specialty Session, Paintings
  • Track Paintings
  • Ticketed Included in Main Registration
  • Authors in Publication Order Ellen Nigro, Sabrina Meloni, Dr. Annelies van Loon, Dr. Ralph Haswell
  • Abstract ID 19129
  • Tags orpiment,Cornelis de Heem,grounds,Dutch painting