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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Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator on Works on Paper

What makes up the largest portion of The Courtauld Gallery’s collection? You might be surprised by the answer…

Prints. Over 24,000 of them, to be precise.

The second Summer Showcase display to highlight a particular aspect of the Gallery’s permanent collection, Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery explores this largest but least well known portion of the collection.

This display of 30 prints spans five centuries and covers most of the major printmaking techniques, from engraving to etching, lithography, wood engraving, woodcut and drypoint.

View of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), The Jockey, 1899, Lithograph

Selecting the display from such a vast collection was certainly a challenge, similar to that undertaken by my colleagues Joanna Selborne and Lizzie Jacklin for their parallel display of prints from the Witt Library, Purpose and Process: British and French Printmaking, 1600-1900.

In choosing the works, I wanted to give visitors an idea of the breadth and depth of the collection, to highlight its strengths and to give a sense of the way its three principal donors shaped it.

The vast majority of the print collection comes from Sir Robert Witt (1872-1952), one of the founders of The Courtauld. Witt created an image library to serve as a research and educational tool for students, scholars and curators, and the more than 20,000 prints that formed part of it (along with thousands of photographs and catalogue cuttings) are mostly reproductive – that is, they reproduce works of art in other media.

Purpose and Process focuses on this aspect of the Witt collection, so I decided to highlight instead some of the small but choice group of ‘master prints’ (prints conceived and executed by artists as original works of art) that came from the Witt Library – a very rare etching by French Mannerist Jacques Bellange, an exquisitely detailed print by Jacques Callot that was made for a city festival in Florence and intended to be mounted and distributed to spectators in the form of a fan, and an allegory of the visual arts by Flemish artist Johannes Stradanus that gives pride of place to printmaking, to name a few.

Jacques Callot, The Fan (The Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer), 1619, Etching

Jacques Callot, The Fan (The Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer), 1619, Etching

Many of The Courtauld’s Old Master prints came to us from Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978), a scholar-collector who bequeathed them along with his superb collection of paintings and drawings. Some of the gems from his collection included in the display include important early engravings and etchings by Andrea Mantegna and Parmigianino and masterpieces by a trio of eighteenth-century Venetian artists – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

View of the etching 'smoking fire' by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Smoking fire, 1749-1760, Etching

It’s also thanks to Seilern that we have a rare impression of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s enigmatic Rabbit Hunt, the only print the artist executed himself. With stunning naturalism, Bruegel depicts a vast landscape in which is hidden a hunter aiming at two rabbits who appears to be stalked by another hunter himself – perhaps an illustration of the proverb ‘He who pursues two rabbits at once, will lose both.’

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rabbit Hunt, 1560 Etching,

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rabbit Hunt, 1560 ,Etching

The Courtauld’s renowned collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art includes prints alongside paintings and drawings (many of them given by Samuel Courtauld himself), and they’re well-represented here, with an etching by Edouard Manet, a wood engraving by Paul Gauguin, and lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.

The display also gives us a chance to show how artists have continued to turn to printmaking in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with prints by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, Chris Ofili and Linda Karshan. Together, they give a taste of how artists today continue to revive and reinvent printmaking techniques, turning them to different ends.

Linda Karshan, N.E. 1, 2002, Etching and drypoint

Linda Karshan, N.E. 1, 2002, Etching

We hope you’ll come and make a few discoveries of your own among the Courtauld’s prints.

Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery runs 19 June-21 September.