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Saturday, June 2 • 10:30am - 11:00am
(Paintings) Back to Blakelock: Casting new light on historic technical studies of paintings by Ralph Albert Blakelock

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Ralph Albert Blakelock was an American landscape artist (1847-1919) famous for his paintings of moonlit Western landscapes painted in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Prices for his paintings soared and forgeries quickly multiplied after he was institutionalized with mental illness in 1899. In the present day, his works are seldom exhibited due to condition issues and concerns about authenticity. Beginning in 1969, Norman Geske, former director of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska, and his team worked toward resolving the latter problem. They supplemented provenance research and documentation with systematic examination of the paintings, including neutron-activation autoradiography of several dozen works, a technique that was first applied to the study of paintings just a few years earlier. The Yale University Art Gallery’s acquisition of Moonlight (c. 1888), a Blakelock painting studied by Geske’s team and considered to have excellent provenance, represented a unique opportunity to revisit the examination and analysis of this painting and Blakelock’s mature oeuvre. Based on detailed examination of painting technique and materials of Moonlight and two moonlit landscape paintings from the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum for Art as well as close observation of other paintings from these and other collections, we propose new criteria for attributing paintings to Blakelock and begin connecting condition issues to material choice and use. To convey depth and subtle tones, the artist alternated numerous medium-rich transparent and pigmented translucent or opaque paint layers. The aging of the natural resin component in the paint layers contributed to the darkening of Moonlight, though the degree to which the artist may have anticipated and desired this is difficult to gauge. In addition to contributing to darkening, the resin content of the paint films has impacted the films’ mechanical properties – resulting in brittleness. The presence of resin-rich top layers also has important implications for solvent-based varnish removal or thinning treatments. This work utilizes a suite of imaging and instrumental analysis techniques (multispectral imaging, x-ray radiography, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy spot measurements and large area mapping, Raman and infrared spectroscopies, pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and scanning electron microscopy – energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy) to study Moonlight comprehensively, in the spirit of Geske and his team. Large area elemental mapping using micro-x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, motivated by the desire to visualize a newly-identified female portrait under the landscape, also helped clarify the paint application sequence in the landscape, especially at the boundary of the sky and tree foliage. The many thin layers used by Blakelock for his compositions, however, complicate the inference of specific pigments from non-destructive elemental analyses; as a result, cross-sections have proven highly valuable for visualizing layer stratigraphy as well as for enabling pigment identification. These results, in combination with large-area elemental maps, can now serve to revisit neutron-activation autoradiography results from the 1970s and reinvigorate scholarship and presentation of Blakelock’s moonlit landscapes.

avatar for Aniko Bezur-[PA]

Aniko Bezur-[PA]

Professional Associate, Wallace S. Wilson Director of Scientific Research
Anikó Bezur received a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Arizona. As a doctoral candidate, she completed internships at the Arizona State Museum's Conservation Laboratory, the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute, and the Getty Conservation... Read More →

Anna Krez

Postgraduate Associate, Yale University Art Gallery
Anna Krez, Paintings Conservation Fellow at the Yale University Art Gallery, earned her BA and MA from the program in conservation, technical art history, and conservation science at the Technical University of Munich in 2013 and 2015, respectively. During her studies she interned... Read More →

avatar for Mark D. Mitchell

Mark D. Mitchell

Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale Art Gallery
Mark D. Mitchell, is the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture. His research interests in American art extend from the colonial period to the later twentieth century, with particular depth in landscape and still-life painting. Exhibitions organized by him at... Read More →
avatar for Meng Ren

Meng Ren

Ph.D. candidate, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Meng Ren is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences; Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her doctoral research focuses on the organic residue analysis in archaeological... Read More →

Katherine Schilling

Associate Conservation Research Scientist, Yale University
Katherine Schilling is an associate conservation research scientist at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and an associate research scientist and lecturer in the department of Chemical Engineering at Yale University. She earned her PhD in chemical physics at the... Read More →

Saturday June 2, 2018 10:30am - 11:00am MDT
Texas Ballroom A Marriott Marquis Houston
  6. Specialty Session, Paintings
  • Specialty Tracks Paintings
  • Cost Type Included with registration
  • Abstract ID 13704
  • Authors (in order) Anna Krez, Anikó Bezur, Mark D. Mitchell, Meng Ren, Katherine A. Schilling