Bruegel in Black & White: A Tree-mendous Discovery

Displays offer not only the possibility to see masterpieces in a different light and a different context but in preparing them, curators and conservators carry out a lot of research on the works. Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited was no exception, but the investigation yielded exceptional results.

Bruegel 3b

The techniques used to examine Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s three surviving paintings in grisaille ranged from xrays to infrared photography (which allows us to see any drawing below the paint) to analysis of the wood panels that Bruegel painted on.

We also used a scientific method called Dendrochronology which enables us to date wood based on the analysis of the patterns left by the tree (or growth) rings. By comparison with other data, it can date when the rings were formed to the exact calendar year and can thus estimate when the tree was cut down. In some areas of the world, it is possible to date wood back a few thousand years. This works particularly well with oak, which Bruegel favoured for his paintings.

Ian Tyers, a dendrochronology specialist, was able to ascertain that The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was painted on a panel made from a 200-year old oak tree from the eastern Baltic region of Europe (present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The tree was cut down after 1550, transformed into a standard size board and shipped to the Netherlands. This date corresponds well to the painting, which is signed and dated 1565. The tree was radially cut (that is to say across the centre of the trunk), as it was already well known at the time that this type of cut minimized warping and distortion.

The support of another grisaille in the exhibition, the stunning Death of the Virgin (National Trust, Upton House), was also analysed. There too, the wooden panel came from an oak tree in the eastern Baltic, cut down after 1553. This particular tree must have been especially majestic as tree-ring analysis indicates that it was already growing in 1228 and had a diameter of more than a metre when it was cut down. More strikingly, at least three panels made from that one tree were used by Bruegel to paint three works of identical size: The Death of the Virgin, Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and The Courtauld’s own Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. Parts of this extraordinary Baltic oak thus live on at The Courtauld this spring. Come and see for yourself!

Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited, until 8 May 2016

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