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Ensor's Palette

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A painter's palette can tell us a great deal about the artist's painterly approach. In this article, restorer Karen Bonne compares a number of real palettes in the museum collection with palettes represented in paintings by, among others, James Ensor. This, too, can yield interesting insights.

The purpose of material and technical research is to analyse and describe artists' tools and techniques as well as the composition of the materials they use. The available research methods vary from the consultation of (art-)historical sources to detailed chemical analysis. Preserved painter's tools can also be interesting sources of information 1. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) possesses almost a dozen palettes of 19th- and 20th-century Belgian artists. Together, they provide a compact overview of evolutions in palette arrangement, i.e. how the different colours or paints are distributed on the palette. Although palettes can contain valuable information about artists' sense of colour and painterly technique, they are all too often overlooked as objects of research.

Nineteenth-century artist's manuals, such as Bouvier's Manuel des jeunes artistes peintres et amateurs en peinture (1827), tend to devote a lot of attention to the ideal palette arrangement 2. Similarly, students at academies of fine arts received instruction on how to arrange their palettes. This interest in palette arrangement coincided with some important evolutions in the production of paints. After the introduction of paint tubes in 1840, paints could be preserved much longer. This made it viable to produce a much more varied range of colours, even though some of these paints were of dubious chemical quality. Hence the search was on for the ‘ideal’ palette arrangement, not only from an artistic point of view, but also for reasons of chemical reactivity 3.

M.P.L. Bouvier, palette arrangement(ca.1827)

M.P.L. Bouvier, palette arrangement (ca.1827)

None of the palettes in the museum collection display as strict an arrangement as proposed by Bouvier, though the palette of Ferdinand De Braekeleer I (1792-1883) is a good example of what one might refer to as an “academic palette”.

  Ferdinand De Braekeleer, Self-Portrait, 1854, oil on canvas, 120.2 cm x 94.9 cm, KMSKA

Palette of Ferdinand De Braekeleer

    
LEFT: Ferdinand De Braekeleer, Self-Portrait, 1854, oil on canvas, 120.2 cm x 94.9 cm, KMSKA inv. no. 1510, © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW / Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, photo by Hugo Maertens
TOP: Palette of Ferdinand De Braekeleer, KMSKA, Composition (pXRF analysis by Karen Bonne): lead white, chrome yellow, various iron oxide-based earthy pigments, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, unidentified red, iron oxide red
 

This kind of arrangement requires preparation as well as a prior conception of how a particular painting will be executed. For example, it allows one to prepare various ready-to-use skin tones beforehand by mixing colours in between the white and the red in the second row. De Braekeleer's palette also contains a striking range of earthy pigments. These types of colours would become far less prominent in painting into the 20th century. The French Impressionists would actually banish them from their palettes altogether, in keeping with their fundamentally new artistic approach whereby the representation of shadows was substantially reduced. In a subsequent “art-historical phase”, trueness-to-nature as such became a secondary consideration.

The museum possesses no actual palette of James Ensor's, but its collection does include four paintings in which Ensor has depicted a palette: Portrait of Willy Finch at His Easel (1880 or 1882?), Portrait of Théo Hannon (1881 or 1882?), Ensor at His Easel (1890?) and Skeleton Painting (1895 or 1896).
Obviously the representation in a painting of a painter's tools, including their palette, need not be truthful. Yet clearly these pictures do provide some interesting clues. The palette arrangements in the former two paintings would appear to be quite realistic, particularly in the case of William Finch, whose palette arrangement corresponds quite closely to the “ academic” palette. The colours have been applied at the edges and they seem rather muted, particularly the range of earthy pigments. They are also characteristic of Ensor's own palette in the early 1880s.

James Ensor, Portrait of Willy Finch, 1880 or 1882, oil on canvas, 50.2 cm x 32 cm, KMSKA

James Ensor, Portrait of Willy Finch (detail)

    
LEFT: James Ensor, Portrait of Willy Finch, 1880 or 1882, oil on canvas, 50.2 cm x 32 cm, KMSKA inv. no. 2694
TOP: James Ensor, Portrait of Willy Finch (detail)


An 1888 painting by Finch demonstrates how much his palette evolved in just a few years’ time, away from earthy pigments, and with much greater prominence of yellow and green tones.

Alfred William Finch, Landscape in West Flanders, 1888, oil on canvas, 61 cm x 98.7 cm, KMSKA

Alfred William Finch, Landscape in West Flanders, 1888, oil on canvas, 61 cm x 98.7 cm, KMSKA inv.no. 1854, © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW / Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, photo by Hugo Maertens

These shades of yellow and green, which until well into the 19th century may not have featured at all on an artist's palette, are also visible in the painted palette in Portrait of Théo Hannon from 1881 or 1882. Also note the very prominent presence of white. This, too, is characteristic of Ensor's own palette: he made abundant use of white throughout his career.

James Ensor, Théo Hannon, 1882, oil on canvas, 70.4 cm x 50.6 cm, KMSKA

James Ensor, Théo Hannon (detail)

 
LEFT: James Ensor, Théo Hannon, 1882, oil on canvas, 70.4 cm x 50.6 cm, KMSKA inv. no. 1854
TOP: James Ensor, Théo Hannon (detail)


The palette in the self-portrait known as Ensor at His Easel from 1890 (?) is represented far less realistically. The colours on the palette correspond only partially with the colours in the self-portrait, including in the painting that is mounted on the easel.

James Ensor, Ensor at His Easel, 1890 (?), oil on canvas, 58.5 cm x 40.5 cm, KMSKA

James Ensor, Ensor at His Easel, 1890 (?), oil on canvas, 58.5 cm x 40.5 cm, KMSKA inv. no. 2809

James Ensor, Ensor at His Easel (detail)

James Ensor, Ensor at His Easel (detail)
James Ensor, Ensor at His Easel (detail))

Ensor's “palettte” in 1896

Comparison of the actual palette of Karel Ooms with the palette in his 1896 self-portrait shows how truthfully it is rendered in the painting. Here, too, we notice various earthy pigments. The paints are arranged along the edge of the palette, leaving space at the centre for mixing colours.

Karel Ooms, Self-Portrait, 1896, oil on canvas, KMSKA Composition (pXRF analysis by Karen Bonne): lead white, cadmium yellow, various pigments based on iron, cobalt blue, chrome green
LEFT: Karel Ooms, Self-Portrait, 1896, oil on canvas, KMSKA inv. no. 1869, © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW / Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, photo by Hugo Maertens - RIGHT: Composition (pXRF analysis by Karen Bonne): lead white, cadmium yellow, various pigments based on iron, cobalt blue, chrome green

Ensor's Skeleton Painting dates from the same year as the painting by Ooms, yet its colour scheme is very different from that in the painting by Ooms, including insofar as the rendering of the palette is concerned. The colours in the skeleton's palette are noticeably more mingled, which chimes with what we know from photographs of Ensor at work in his studio. There are very few earthy pigments to be seen here, while yellow and green are quite prominent.

James Ensor, Skeleton Painting, 1896, oil on canvas, 37.7 x 46, KMSKA

James Ensor, Skeleton Painting, 1896, oil on canvas, 37.7 x 46, KMSKA inv. no. 3112 (detail)

LEFT: James Ensor, Skeleton Painting, 1896, oil on canvas, 37.7 x 46, KMSKA inv. no. 3112 (detail)
RIGHT: Composition (pXRF analysis by Koen Janssens and Geert Van der Snickt): lead white, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, chrome green, vermilion, earth combined with vermilion

In 2011, Geert Van der Snickt and Professor Koen Janssens carried out a series of precise measurements using pXRF in order to identify the pigments in Ensor's painting 4. It emerged that, with the exception of the earthy pigments, the colours applied by Ensor corresponded largely with those appearing on the palette of Karel Ooms. In addition, an XRF scan was made of the entire surface of the painting. This technique yields a different image for each targeted chemical element. The whiter the image turns out, the stronger the signal of the corresponding chemical element. This allows one to assess where a particular type of paint has been applied and, to a lesser extent, how the paint layers are constructed 5. The images below show that vermilion is spread out across the entire right side of the palette. Cobalt blue is discernible not only in the visibly blue areas in the picture, but also in the green sections.

XRF scan for mercury (Hg), a compound of vermilion XRF scan for cobalt (Co), a compound of cobalt blue
LEFT: XRF scan for mercury (Hg), a compound of vermilion - RIGHT: XRF scan for cobalt (Co), a compound of cobalt blue

The colour arrangements on the palettes that Ensor painted around 1880-82 still adhere to the “ academic” palettes of Ferdinand De Braekeleer and Karel Ooms. However, in the palettes that he depicted in 1890 and 1896, the traditional earthy colours are all but absent. These later pictures also suggest that the palettes no longer served primarily as a tool for mixing paints, but rather as a “stopover” between paint tube and paint surface.

Karen Bonne

Information and comments

If you would like to share your knowledge or exclusive information with the Ensor Research Project, or to comment on any of the articles published as part of this ongoing project, please leave your personal details using our online form.

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1 K. BONNE, Historische schildersmaterialen als onderzoeksbron voor materiaaltechnisch onderzoek van laat 19de en vroeg 20ste eeuwse Belgische schilderkunst – Onderzoek naar paletten, verftubes, oude pigmenten, Master's thesis, Antwerp Academy of Arts, 2010
2 M.P.L. BOUVIER, Manuel des jeunes artistes peintres et amateurs en peinture, Levrault, 1827.
3 A.H. CHURCH, The chemistry of paints and painting, 1890, p. 16
4 G. VAN DER SNICKT, James Ensor's pigments studied by means of portable and synchrotron radiation-based X-ray techniques: evolution, context and degradation, PhD thesis, University of Antwerp, 2011
5 Prof. Dr. Koen JANSSENS and Dr. Geert VAN DER SNICKT, University of Antwerp

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