Archive for the 'works of art' Category

Behind the Scenes: Treatment of an Early Work by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings in the conservation studio

The Dallas Museum of Art and Art Bridges Foundation partnered in early January of this year to undertake the conservation treatment and technical study of Art Bridge’s newly acquired masterpiece The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Additionally, the project will allow for the first public presentation of the work, curated by Sue Canterbury at the DMA.

Before conservation treatment: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894, oil on canvas, Owned by Art Bridges Foundation

When The Thankful Poor arrived at the DMA’s conservation studio, it was already strikingly beautiful. The composition holds space and immediately draws the viewer in. The painting is double-sided, presenting an unfinished version of The Young Sabot Maker on the reverse, a composition Tanner would complete the following year and which now resides in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s collection.

The Young Sabot Maker on the back of The Thankful Poor

Prior to any conservation treatment, a thorough examination is always undertaken, including archival documentation research relating to any previous interventions. It became apparent that the work had undergone at least one relatively minor restoration campaign in the 1970s. It was also evident that the painting was cleaned and re-varnished in a second treatment, though no verifiable documentation was found. UV illumination was used to better understand which varnishes and treatment materials might have been used, as surface materials such as varnishes and areas of retouching can be differentiated based on their observed fluorescence. In this painting, the varnish is seen glowing green, and older areas of restoration present as black spots.

Here, the front of the work is illuminated with UV light. The streaky green appearance is the fluorescence exhibited by the surface varnish, and the black spots are areas of older restoration.

As both of these treatments took place many years earlier, the varnish layers had become discolored, both yellowed and cloudy. An old tear that had been repaired using wax and paper had also begun to open and needed to be addressed. Finally, a thick layer of discolored adhesive was scattered throughout the composition on the reverse of the canvas.

Left: A tear before treatment. Right: First image showing tear before treatment; detail showing adhesive residues on reverse of canvas.

Tanner was an innovative artist, known to experiment with layering techniques that require especially mindful cleaning approaches. Cleaning tests were conducted under microscopic magnification to determine a cleaning protocol to remove the layers of discolored varnish. To better understand the boundary between paint and varnish, a microscopic sample was used to gain a view of the various layers. The resulting cleaning process was executed almost entirely under the microscope to ensure the most delicate layers were preserved.

Layers seen in a photomicrograph of a cross-sectional sample at 20X magnification

The tear was then mended and areas of losses were filled and retouched using reversible conservation materials. Wide cracks, known as traction cracks, were carefully retouched to better integrate the surface visually.

Left: Detail of areas of traction cracking before treatment. Right: Same detail after treatment.

The cleaning was transformative. The layers of discolored varnish lifted to reveal a colorful palette previously unseen. The overall tone of the painting shifted to unveil a much cooler composition, balancing the contrast.

It was an honor to work on this beautiful painting. Results from the treatment allow the work to be appreciated as the artist intended. Tanner was a master of tone and light, both of which he captured so beautifully in this magnificent composition. Research and treatment work were done collaboratively with my fabulous curatorial colleagues, both at the DMA and at Art Bridges, and I want to give a heartfelt acknowledgment to Sue Canterbury, Martha MacLeod, and Margi Conrads for their collaboration.

Reverse of painting before (left) and after treatment (right)
Front of painting before (left) and after treatment (right).

Laura Eva Hartman is the Paintings Conservator at the DMA.

Hitting Close to Home

As the closing date for the exhibition For a Dreamer of Houses approaches, I can’t help but reflect on how timely, vibrant, and meaningful the show has been to those who have experienced it. The exhibition was originally set to open in March 2020, an opening that was never realized due to the pandemic. The timing was poignant and somewhat surreal—here we have a show about the significance of one’s home coming to fruition during a time of socially distanced shutdown, when all of us were becoming significantly more familiar with the spaces we inhabit. During that time, we launched a virtual tour of the exhibition, which allowed audiences from near and far to explore the contents of the show and think about how they relate to our present experiences, how our spaces reflect ourselves, and what our spaces and the everyday objects within them mean to us. The themes hit close to home, so to speak.

The exhibition finally opened in person along with the rest of the DMA in August 2020. We welcomed you home to your city’s museum—home to this special exhibition of contemporary art—after all of us spent months in our own homes. With fresh perspectives, you, our visitors, made magic happen as you ventured out and became part of the art. Here’s a look back at what you experienced.

The colorful energy of Alex Da Corte’s unmissable Rubber Pencil Devil:

The whimsy of the Drawers, Chests, and Wardrobes section, featuring works by Olivia Erlanger, Robert Pruitt, and Sarah Lucas:

The awe-inspiring immersion of Francisco Moreno’s Chapel:

The intimate materials of Janine Antoni’s Grope:

The delicate beauty of Do Ho Suh’s Hub, 260-10 Sungbook-dong, Sungbook-ku, Seoul, Korea:

. . . and much more.

There’s still a bit of time left for you to visit For a Dreamer of Houses before the exhibition closes on July 4, 2021. Be sure to book your visit soon and make yourself at home.

Hayley Caldwell is the Social Media and Content Manager at the DMA.

The White North

Julian Charrière, Towards No Earthly Pole, 2019. Film still. Courtesy of the artist; DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, Berlin; Galerie Tschudi, Zuoz; Sean Kelly, New York; and Sies+Höke, Düsseldorf. Copyright the artist; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany 

Julian Charrière’s work Towards No Earthly Pole draws its title from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epitaph in Westminster Abbey, London, for Sir John Franklin, the British explorer lost in an ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The epitaph reads in full: 

NOT HERE: THE WHITE NORTH HAS THY BONES; AND THOU, HEROIC SAILOR-SOUL, ART PASSING ON THINE HAPPIER VOYAGE NOW TOWARD NO EARTHLY POLE. 

Franklin’s doomed expedition was the source of public fascination in the late 19th century and continues to shape our perception of Arctic exploration to this day. Franklin embarked in 1845 with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, on his third attempt to discover the Northwest Passage, a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic. The ships became icebound in 1847 in the Victoria Strait and were abandoned in April 1848 after nearly two dozen officers and men, including Franklin, perished in the cold. The rest made for the Canadian mainland but were never heard from again. Of the 129 men who began the expedition, none survived.  

The British Admiralty launched several search parties over the subsequent decades, recovering artifacts and remains from the doomed expedition. Their findings suggested that the crew succumbed to hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning, exposure, and disease. In some of the most sensational findings, examinations of remains offered potential evidence of cannibalism. The search for Franklin over the course of nearly 30 rescue missions better mapped the Canadian coastline and led to the eventual discovery of a Northwest Passage, but it also left a lasting legacy in the cultural imagination of Victorian Britain. The endeavor and its failure offered a narrative of man’s struggle against nature, the tragic romance and heroism of exploration, and the overwhelming power of a landscape alien to the British public.  

Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Norma and Lamar Hunt, 1979.28

This preoccupation with the Arctic and the looming specter of Franklin is evident in the American painter Frederic Edwin Church’s 1861 work The Icebergs. A jewel of the DMA’s collection, the painting is emblematic of the sweeping views and dramatic uses of light that characterized the Hudson River School, with which Church was associated. Church worked from studies produced during his own month-long expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1859, where he observed the material qualities of the icebergs and their Arctic surroundings. 

Initially exhibited in New York and Boston in 1861 with the title The North, the painting failed to attract buyers due to the ongoing Civil War, despite immense praise from American audiences. In 1863 Church sent the painting to London, where he hoped to attract interest from his British supporters. Before transporting the work across the Atlantic, he made two notable alterations: renaming the work with its present title, The Icebergs, to avoid conflation with the Union; and adding a broken mast to the foreground. Though the artist’s motivations for including the mast remain unknown, it may have served as a reference to the Franklin expedition, synonymous with the devastated promise of Arctic exploration.  

The same interest in the beguiling and terrible power of the icebergs that captivated Church is evident in Towards No Earthly Pole. The sublime glacial landscape appears fantastic and otherworldly, something beyond the comprehension of humanity. Though Indigenous communities have long staked out ways of living symbiotically with the Arctic environment, Franklin’s expedition and Church’s painting point to the hubris of imperial attempts to conquer and claim the polar landscape. Charrière’s film suggests that despite our advances in scientific knowledge and ability to map the world, we still have a fascination with and ignorance of a land that retains its power to resist us.

Hilde Nelson is the Curatorial Assistant for Contemporary Art at the DMA.

Connections Across Collections: Fatherhood

With Father’s Day just around the corner, we asked DMA staff to highlight their favorite works across our collections that connect to the art of fatherhood. See what they selected, and celebrate your own father or father figure with a visit to the DMA on June 20!

Nicole R. Myers, The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art

One of the things I love most about this grand self-portrait by Carpentier is that it celebrates his role as a father and husband as much as it does his profession as painter. By tightly grouping the figures, the women’s arms lovingly intertwined, Carpentier places familial love and support at the center of his studio practice.

Listen to Laura Eva Hartman, Paintings Conservator at the DMA, discuss this painting here.

Paul Claude-Michel Carpentier, Self-Portrait with Family in the Artist’s Studio, 1833, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Mrs. John B. O’Hara Fund, 2014.38.FA

Stacey Lizotte, DMA League Director of Adult Programs

Julian Onderdonk was one of the greatest early Texas artists known for his paintings of bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas. Julian was originally trained by his father, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, an artist and art teacher in San Antonio and Dallas who was known as the “Dean of Texas’s Artists” for his contributions to the arts in Texas.

Julian Onderdonk, Untitled (Field of Bluebonnets), 1918–1920, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, bequest of Margaret M. Ferris, 1990.153

Mark Castro, The Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art

In the Americas, Saint Joseph is depicted as youthful and strong, often carrying the child Christ in his arms, like in this New Mexican bulto currently on view in Devoted: Art and Spirituality in Mexico and New Mexico. This reinforced his role as Christ’s earthly father and the protector of the Holy Family.

José Benito Ortega, Saint Joseph, Late 19th–Early 20th century, wood, gesso, and paint, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus, 1961.51.A-C

Leah Hanson, Director of Family, Youth, and School Programs

This might seem an unusual choice to celebrate fathers, but what you can’t see behind the scenes is a father who supported his daughter in becoming an artist. This love even extended to a menagerie of animals he brought to the family studio for Rosa to study and paint!

Rosa Bonheur, A Sheep at Rest, second half of the 19th century, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. Alessandra Comini in honor of Charlotte Whaley, 2018.44

Martha MacLeod, Senior Curatorial Administrator and Curatorial Assistant for Decorative Arts/Design, Latin American Art, and American Art

Chase was one of America’s leading painters and teachers. He completed about a dozen portraits of his daughter Dieudonnée. Here she is in her early teens. Also, one of her father’s students, she was an accomplished still life and landscape painter.

William Merritt Chase, Dieudonnée, c. 1899, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase, 1922.2

Printmaking: A Process

Modern technology makes creating multiples easy. With a click of a button, we can print full-color images and entire articles of text in seconds. Making copies wasn’t always so quick and simple—entire books were scribed by hand, and artists and their studios would labor over multiple versions of a painting or sculpture for their clientele.

Today’s electronic printers can trace their origins to the early printmaking innovators in East Asia. In China, engraved blocks of wood were used to create copies of written text as early as the 8th century. Korean printmakers took woodblock printing a step further by creating the earliest form of metal movable type in the early 13th century, nearly two centuries before Gutenberg brought movable type to Europe.

While printmaking facilitated a wider distribution of text and knowledge, how did it impact artwork and images? Innovations in the 17th century gave artists the ability to create multicolored prints on a single sheet. Engravers would create multiple carved blocks for a design, with each block carrying a different color. Previously, an outline had been printed in one color, and artists would hand paint in the rest of the design.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Hara: Mount Fuji in the Morning, 1834, woodblock print, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus, 1984.202.14

The addition of multiple blocks in the printing process meant that artists and publishers could speed up production, to the great benefit of everyday people. In Japan, Utagawa Hiroshige produced a series of 53 prints representing the stops along the Tokaido Road, which linked Edo and Tokyo. Hiroshige’s series was extremely popular; it was printed thousands of times and sold as a souvenir or keepsake for display in homes, indicating that prints were priced cheaply enough to make them accessible to travelers for purchase.

After spending time with Japanese woodblock prints, it’s easy to understand their popularity. In Hiroshige’s Tokaido Road series, as well as later works created by Hiroshi Yoshida, prints transport the viewer to new places and captured with spectacular detail and color how people interacted with their environments .

Hiroshi Yoshida, A Glimpse of Ueno Park, 1935, polychrome woodblock print, Dallas Museum of Art, the Abram C. Joseph and Ruth F. Ring Collection, gift of Miss Ruth F. Ring, 1985.44

Curious about what it takes to make a print? While woodblock printing does require some special equipment, you can get a taste of the process using everyday materials you might already have at home. Here’s what you need:

  • 1–2 flat sheets of styrofoam, cut from a take-out container or paper plate 
  • Scissors or exacto knife  
  • Flat paintbrush 
  • Watercolor or acrylic paint 
  • Cup of water 
  • Rag or small towel  
  • A large metal spoon  
  • Watercolor paper 

1. Cut a design out of the styrofoam sheet using a pair of scissors or an exacto knife. The styrofoam will act as a stamp that will carry the color to the paper.  

2. Using paint and paintbrush, apply a thin layer of color to the styrofoam. It’s helpful to thin the paint down slightly with water so the layer is even.  

3. With the rag, dampen the watercolor paper slightly. This will help the paper receive the color from the paint.  

4. Place your styrofoam sheet paint-side down onto the watercolor paper, like a stamp. Use the metal spoon to press down on the paper.  

5. Gently peel the styrofoam away from the paper to reveal your design.  

6. Wipe off the leftover paint from the styrofoam and reapply color to print another edition of your print! Each print will look different, but that’s also a part of the process that’s lost when we turn over the work to machines. When something is handmade, there will always be a degree of human error that reveals the presence of an artist behind the artwork.  

Jessica Thompson-Castillo is the Manager of Teen Programs at the DMA.

Japanese Printmaking Family Visits the DMFA

Fujio, Hodaka, and Chizuko Yoshida

For three generations, the Yoshida family has produced woodblock print artists integral to major 20th-century Japanese print movements. Fujio, Hodaka, and Chizuko Yoshida arrived in Dallas on April 25, 1957. Hodaka; his wife, Chizuko; and his mother, Fujio, represent two generations of the Yoshida family of artists and printmakers active from the 19th century to the present. The trio’s Dallas engagement included lecture demonstrations of woodblock printmaking at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Club of McKinney, the Fort Worth Art Center, and TSCW in Denton.

A small exhibition of 30 prints by the Yoshida family were also on view and for sale during their visit. In the top right of the photo, you can see one of Hodaka Yoshida’s prints that was acquired by the DMFA from the exhibition.

Hodaka Yoshida, Ancient People B, 1956, woodcut, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase, 1957.17

Hodaka Yoshida’s work was completely abstract. He first worked in oils but didn’t start making prints until 1950, though he was steeped in the technique since he was a child. He carved his own blocks and printed his own works from the beginning. Hodaka’s focus on abstraction was a great departure from the style of his father, Hiroshi, a prominent figure in modern Japanese prints who is well known for his landscapes. The DMA’s collection includes 64 prints by Hiroshi Yoshida.

Photo from Dallas Morning News article

The Dallas Morning News article on the trio’s Dallas engagement describes Hodaka (1926-1995) as teaching at the University of Oregon, having previously taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Hawaii. Though not noted in the article, Fujio and Chizuko were also accomplished artists and printmakers.

Fujio (1887–1987) was the first female artist in the Yoshida family. Like many of the artists in the family, she began in watercolors and oils, exhibiting with her husband, Hiroshi, on their travels to the United States in the early 20th century. After her husband died, she became more influenced by Hodaka’s abstract art and was creating woodblock prints of abstract flowers by 1953.

Chizuko (1924–2017) began studying art at a young age. She met Hodaka through the Taiheyio artist group and shifted away from painting to printmaking after they were married. World travels with Hodaka and Fujio provided inspiration for her prints, which ranged from geometric abstraction to natural forms.

Toshi Yoshida, Shinjuku, date unknown, polychrome woodblock print, Dallas Museum of Art, the Abram C. Joseph and Ruth F. Ring Collection, gift of Miss Ruth F. Ring, 1985.86; Toshi Yoshida, Ishiyama Temple, date unknown, polychrome woodblock print, Dallas Museum of Art, the Abram C. Joseph and Ruth F. Ring Collection, gift of Miss Ruth F. Ring, 1985.87

Hodaka, Chizuko, and Fujio’s visit wasn’t the first introduction Dallas audiences had to the Yoshida family. Hodaka’s older brother Toshi also lectured on woodblock print techniques four years earlier, in 1953. During this trip to the United States, Mexico, London, and the Near East, Toshi gave lectures at 30 museums and galleries in 18 states. 

Hillary Bober is the Archivist at the DMA.

Connections Across Collections: Motherhood

Motherhood is an art! We’re celebrating Mother’s Day by spotlighting artworks and objects in our collection that illustrate the theme of motherly love and strength. Read below to find out about what our curators from different departments selected.

Dr. Michelle Rich, The Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of Arts of the Americas

Curator Michelle Rich selected this 100 BCE–250 CE ceramic sculpture made by the people of Jalisco. The object depicts the bond between a mother nursing her infant child.

Woman nursing child, 100 BCE–250 CE, Jalisco peoples, ceramic, paint, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, The Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus Collection of Fertility Figures, 1982.387.FA

Dr. Mark A. Castro, The Jorge Baldor Curator of Latin American Art

In this drawing, Guillermo Meza draws a reddish line from the mother’s head and down her spine. The same color as the blanket that holds the child on her back, together they evoke the physical ties that bind mother and child together.

Guillermo Meza, Mother and Child, 1953, crayon and colored chalk, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard K. Weil, 1959.27

Sue Canterbury, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Curator of American Art

Mary Cassatt is known for images of a mother and child that also recall Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child. Typically, her models were neighbors rather than family. This is one of the last works she devoted to this theme.

Mary Cassatt, Sleepy Baby, c. 1910, pastel on paper, Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 1952.38.M

The Many Lives of a Still Life

When you walk past a painting in a museum, do you ever wonder what the back side looks like?

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Carafe, Milk Can, Bowl, and Orange, 1879–80, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection, 1985.R.10
Back side of the frame of Still Life with Carafe, Milk Can, Bowl, and Orange

For curators and researchers, the verso, or B-side, of a painting can be a mine of information about its past life. Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Carafe, Milk Can, Bowl, and Orange, currently featured in the Reves Spotlight rotation gallery on the DMA’s third level, is a case in point: the back of the frame was once filled with stamps and labels applied over many years by the painting’s former owners and their shippers. Those historical records have subsequently been transferred to a backing board to guarantee their preservation and that of the precious information they carry. As a result, this backing board is now reminiscent of an avid traveler’s passport stamp page.

Backing board for Still Life with Carafe, Milk Can, Bowl, and Orange

In the top right, a rectangular piece of cardboard reads “about 1880-2 / Venturi” in faint handwritten pencil. This Italian art historian was the author of the first catalogue raisonné of Cézanne’s works, which is perhaps why his dating of this painting was carefully recorded.

Even before arriving in the US, Cézanne’s Still Life had traveled internationally. From Paris, where the artist likely sold it to a dealer, it entered a private collection in Amsterdam before returning to the French capital in the early 1920s, where it was acquired by Marius de Zaya, an artist and dealer based in New York City who offered it in his newly founded gallery among “drawings, paintings and sculptures of the very best artists of the modern movement.”[1] There, a founder of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Lillie P. Bliss, purchased it, and upon her death she bequeathed it to that institution, which eventually deaccessioned the work in 1944.

As recorded by two large labels on the left side of the panel, at MoMA the painting was known as The Water Can, based on the metal vessel at its center. In 1985 the enigmatic nature of that element was discussed in a letter exchange between then DMA director Steven Nash and Columbia University professor Theodore Reff, who concluded: “The picture is quite wonderful, charming, fresh, simple, almost naïve, and will grace your collections, regardless of the identity of the objects in it.”[2]

Shortly after Wendy and Emery Reves acquired it in 1955, the picture was referred to as simply Nature Morte (still life) or Nature Morte en bleu (still life in blue) in two French exhibitions that were likely the occasion in which the painting received the two transportation labels seen on the right side of the backing board. After entering the DMA’s collection in 1985, the painting’s current title was first formulated in 1998 and slightly revised in 2003 (the term “coffee” referring to the bowl was dropped) in an effort to describe the subject matter as accurately as possible. While we must agree with Reff that the charm of this picture remains unchanged no matter what we call it, by recording the painting’s previous titles and where it traveled, these labels have been essential to the work of art historians to reconstruct the history of the ownership, exhibition, criticism, and scholarship of this object over its 140-plus years of existence.

Stop by to see this work in the Reves Spotlight rotation gallery now through September 27 and admire more still lifes at the DMA in an exhibition focusing on the work of Cubist painter Juan Gris, an avid admirer of Paul Cézanne. In Cubism in Color: The Still Lifes of Juan Gris, the labels and inscriptions on the back of Guitar and Pipe are on full display.

Gloria de Liberali is the Dedo and Barron Kidd McDermott Intern Fellow for European Art at the DMA.


[1] John Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne. A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), 1:288.

[2] Their correspondence is preserved in the painting’s object file at the DMA.

Connections Across Collections: Art and Nature

We’re celebrating Earth Month with art from across our collections that connects to the natural world. Read below to find out about the artworks and objects our curators selected.

Sue Canterbury, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Curator of American Art
In this landscape painted near Waxahachie, Florence McClung emphasizes the rounded forms of the earth, juxtaposing them against the vertical shocks of wheat. She investigates the geometry of the cultivated fields while also emphasizing the richness and bounty of nature.

Florence E. McClung, Squaw Creek Valley, 1937, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Florence E. McClung, 1985.12

Dr. Michelle Rich, The Ellen and Harry S. Parker III Assistant Curator of Arts of the Americas
This Olmec tablet portrays the cosmos arranged in three dimensions. Three dots signify the place of creation and anchor a stepped mountain-pyramid to the earthly realm. Above this, a World Tree reaches to a scaffold structure marked by “crossed bands” associated with the sky.

Tablet with incised symbols, 900–500 BCE, Olmec peoples, greenstone and red pigment, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association purchase, 1968.33
Drawings courtesy of Dr. F. Kent Reilly, Texas State University.

Sarah Schleuning, Interim Chief Curator and The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design
Faye Toogood explores pure geometric form by using cobb, a material consisting of clay, sand, straw, water, and earth as her media. By focusing on design and material expressiveness rather than functionality, this work pushes into the realm of pure sculpture.

Faye Toogood, Cup/Earth, 2016, cobb composite (acrylic polymer and natural materials), Dallas Museum of Art, Discretionary Decorative Arts Fund, 2018.34.2

Conserving Kahlo

The Dallas Museum of Art was given the opportunity to exhibit a collection of exceptional Frida Kahlo works. In preparation for their display on February 28, 2021, three of the paintings were studied in the paintings conservation studio, including Still Life with Parrot and Flag from 1951, Sun and Life from 1947, and Diego and Frida 1929–1944 from 1944. Using infrared photography, X-radiography, and microscopic examination, novel information was brought to light regarding each work.

Frida Kahlo, Diego and Frida 1929–1944, 1944, oil on Masonite with original painted shell frame, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, Sun and Life, 1947, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frida Kahlo, Still Life with Parrot and Flag, 1951, oil on Masonite, Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Arvil. © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Infrared photography allows conservators to look through surface level paint to the underlying preparatory layers. X-radiography, on the other hand, allows us to visualize compositional changes made in paint. This type of imaging provided a fascinating perspective into Frida Kahlo’s working practice.

In Still Life with Parrot and Flag, an initial planning drawing done in both thin lines and wide ink strokes shows how Kahlo simplified compositional elements in the final painting, especially with regards to shifting the size and shape of the fruits. The most labored part of the underdrawing shows several adjustments made to the parrot’s wing and beak, and changes made to the adjacent mango. The blue lines overlayed onto the visible light photograph represent a tracing made from the IR photograph of the most prominent changes Kahlo made to this initial underdrawing. The underdrawing observed in each painting made clear that Kahlo had a strong vision for the overall composition of each work, regardless of the subtle changes made in the painting process.

Infrared photograph of Still Life with Parrot and Flag
Tracing of drawing lines overlaid onto visible light photograph

IR photography also revealed a small inscription on one of the shells attached to the frame on Diego and Frida. This inscription reads “Recuerdo de Veracruz” and was subsequently covered up by red paint, probably by Frida herself. Frames like this one would have likely been found in the tourist market of Veracruz; here, it is a special hidden detail giving us an intimate glimpse into the past life of the object.

An inscription on one of the shells on the right originally read “Recuerdo de Veracruz”

The X-ray taken of Sun and Life revealed an exciting evolution observed in the painting: although Kahlo’s basic composition was generally set from the underdrawing to the early painting phase, the details evolved significantly in later phases of painting. The plant pods surrounding the sun, for example, largely began closed but opened gradually during the painting process. Another interesting discovery was the fetus-like element directly behind the sun that emerged as Frida finalized the painting, in contrast to the X-ray that reveals a closed pod. The blue lines overlaid onto the visible light image of the painting represent a tracing made from the X-ray and indicate where compositional changes took place during the painting process.

X-radiograph of Sun and Life
Tracing compositional changes observed in x-radiograph

Kahlo’s brushwork is stunning, utilizing a vast array of application techniques and styles to create movement and texture in each work. In Still Life with Parrot and Flag, her use of small rapid, brushstrokes achieves a composition of intricately varied textures and color, while long, sinuous strokes are used predominantly in Sun and Life. Frida and Diego takes a more direct painting technique of highly textured paint applied in short, tiny strokes. It is interesting to note that in two of the paintings, impressions of Frida’s fingerprints are visible in the paint—a subtle hallmark that humanizes the work.

Varied painting techniques shown in close-ups of her works

Artist’s fingerprints in Frida and Diego
Same detail under 10x magnification
Artist’s fingerprints in Still Life with Parrot and Flag

It was a privilege to examine these great works together with Dr. Mark A. Castro and Dr. Agustín Arteaga. I hope you enjoy this special moment to see the works together.

Laura Eva Hartman is the Paintings Conservator at the DMA.


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