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Lead white and zinc white

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The Ensor Research Project of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KSMKA) was launched in July 2013. The experts conducting the research will publish articles on their findings on the KMSKA website on a regular basis. The present article discusses the use of lead white and zinc white in Ensor’s Still-life with Chinoiseries.

Stilleven met chinoiserieën (1906)

James Ensor, Still-life with Chinoiseries, (1906)

Geert Van der Snickt obtained a PhD in Conservation and Restoration Studies from the University of Antwerp in 2012 with a thesis on the identification of pigments in Ensor’s paintings using X-ray fluorescence analyses. His research focused on sixty-five Ensor paintings in the collections of KMSKA, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Brussels) and Mu.Zee in Ostend, as well as in the former Dexia collection (Belfius). Dr. Van der Snickt found that all of Ensor’s paintings contain lead white. He only encountered significant amounts of zinc white in the paintings Ensor produced as a student (1875-80) and in works dating from after 1900. In the second half of the nineteenth century, zinc white was increasingly used as an alternative to lead white, which was toxic. Nonetheless, many artists continued to use the latter on account of its opacity and drying properties.

Karen Bonne, a researcher with the Ensor Research Project, explains:

Why zinc white?
Karen Bonne: "The young Ensor – from around age fifteen up to twenty – probably used study-quality paint, in which the more expensive pigments were often replaced or supplemented with cheaper alternatives, such as zinc white."

Research has shown that, in Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), Ensor first applied a lead white ground, as in most of his paintings, which he then covered almost entirely with a layer of zinc white. Why?
Karen Bonne: "Presumably in order to create subtle colour variations. Zinc white is ‘colder’ than lead white and it has a greyish blue tone. Also, zinc white was cheaper, which must have been a consideration when covering large areas of canvas."

So how do we know which pigments he used?
Karen Bonne: "Some pigments have a very characteristic fluorescence under UV light. Zinc white is a good example in this respect. It has a strong greenish blue fluorescence. Under UV light, this fluorescence is visible virtually across the surface area of the painting. So that’s how we know Ensor covered most of the canvas in a layer of zinc white."

How precisely did Ensor proceed in this painting?
Karen Bonne: "If we look at the details in the composition, there are clues as to its build-up or the order in which the various paint layers were applied.
 

  Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), detail)   Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), detail under UV light
Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), detail Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), detail under UV light


Take the odd little man in the right of the composition: under UV light, the contrast between lead white and zinc white is quite apparent. The red line indicates the boundary with the lead white ground. In other words, the zinc white has been applied almost to the edge of the canvas. The greenish blue lines that we discern in the figure correspond with the cracks in the paint surface. This indicates that the figure was painted on a layer of zinc white rather than directly onto the ground.

  Stilleven met chinoiserieën (detail)   Stilleven met chinoiserieën (detail) UV-opname
Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), detail Still-life with Chinoiseries (1906), detail under UV light

The second detail shows a group with a woman and a lion next to a vase. Under UV light, the entire background becomes greenish blue, the tell-tale sign of zinc white. In ordinary light, you can see how Ensor highlighted this white with pink and blue touches. And under a stereomicroscope it becomes clear that he did so while the white was still wet, so that the colours effectively blended on the canvas. This technique is known as wet-on-wet painting. The white in the face and arms of the woman is lead white, as is apparent from the entirely different effect under UV light. We see the same thing in all other objects in the still-life. In other words, in working out the details of the composition, Ensor made use of lead white."

More about the painting

James Ensor, Still-life with Chinoiseries, (1906)
Oil on canvas, 79 x 98 cm, bottom right: ENSOR, inv. no. 1959.
Donated to the museum by the heirs of Alphonse Aerts, 1924.

Ensor produced two further, almost identical, but slightly smaller versions of this composition. The version in the collection of the Dhondt-Daenens Museum in Deurle is signed and dated 1907. The other version, which is in a private collection, is dated 1908. In the catalogue that Ensor himself compiled for the monograph by Emile Verhaeren (1908), the title Still-life with Chinoiseries indeed appears three times, under the years 1906, 1907 and 1908 respectively. It is hard to tell whether these three paintings are more or less independent renderings of almost identical ensembles of Far Eastern objects or whether the versions of 1907 and 1908 are repetitions of the 1906 canvas.
 

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