The secret lives of paintings and what lies beneath their surfaces are among the extraordinary territories we explore in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s new digital catalogue of its French paintings and pastels. Finds including a grasshopper leg and one painting’s tiny “original, unfaded pink interior,” along with infrared images and extended provenance and histories, should thrill armchair and professional curators, historians, conservators, scientists and curious art lovers alike.
This 12-year project represents the latest scholarship and conservation examination of the museum’s 106 French paintings and pastels from the 1600s to the 1900s, and launches with four extensively researched works by Degas, Manet, Cezanne and van Gogh. The museum plans to add essays about two more paintings each month. The catalogue includes a timeline of the museum, running concurrently with a Kansas City timeline, along with an essay on how the French collection began by Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, senior curator of European arts, and an introductory essay about conservation. Notes to Readers includes definitions of multiple technical terms.
On how she wrapped her mind around this massive undertaking, DeGalan notes, “My approach when I arrived in the fall of 2016 was to refine the research protocol established during the previous eight years of work on the catalogue, engage the Getty (Foundation) as a thought partner on the development of the digital platform, surround myself with smart, capable people, which included placing Meghan Gray, who started as a researcher at the onset of the project in 2008, into more of a project management role, and quite frankly, to take a deep breath and have the courage to put our efforts out there.” She also credits William Keyse Rudolph, deputy director of curatorial affairs, for the serial release idea for the works.
An actual lived experience with a work of art and its preservation, research, conservation and outreach is the essential work of a museum, and yet, the ability to present in-depth information about works of art, based on sophisticated conservation tools, allows us to more fully understand a work from the inside out.
The artist can no longer speak, but the materials can.
Some of the conservation details of Manet’s “The Croquet Party” reveal areas of wet-over-wet and wet-over-dry paint application, plus tiny areas of red paint emerging through drying cracks in the sky. Conservators can determine in what order Manet painted areas and figures of the painting, revealing how the painting progressed. Conservation specifics, coupled with the curatorial essay and exhibition history, allow us to more fully understand almost everything about an artwork. For instance, in van Gogh’s “Olive Trees,” the combination of conservator findings, van Gogh’s particular brushwork, and curatorial expertise suggests that “Olive Trees” was a transitional painting within the entire olive trees series van Gogh painted.
Through the works’ provenance, we follow the paintings through time. For instance, French artist Gustave Caillebotte (represented in the collection) purchased Manet’s “The Croquet Party” from Manet. The painting then went to Caillebotte’s brother, was inherited by his wife, then passed to her daughter and was ultimately purchased by Marion and Henry Bloch and gifted to the Nelson in 2015. “Olive Trees” migrates from the hands of van Gogh in 1889 to the collection of the Nelson-Atkins in 1932 via a route that includes The Netherlands, Berlin, Vienna and Budapest.
As DeGalan explains the outreach effect of the digital catalogue, “By providing a free platform for people to engage with the collection on their own time and at their own pace, we have increased our reach through reducing the number of barriers of access. This fundamentally changes not only the nature of the relationship between the public and the museum, but the make-up of our audience. If that serves as a catalyst to see the works in person, all the better.”
The catalog is available at www.nelson-atkins.org.