IV. Technique and state of conservation

The painting is a work on linen of the tuchlein type, painted in glue-size tempera on an unprepared ground, which was a common technique used in Flanders in the 15th and 16th centuries despite the fact that relatively few examples have survived. The original support is of a type commonly used at this period, made from a fine, regularly woven linen of a pale tone and with a taffeta weave. The support has been treated with nothing more than a coat of animal size. This was the normal method of preparation for paintings with this type of support, which were generally hung on the wall without a stretcher. The paint is applied in a simple manner in one or two layers, given that tempera did not allow for the use of impasto or glazes. The pigments used are similar to those found in the tuchlein of The Adoration of the Magi in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, attributed with some doubts to Pieter Bruegel the Elder12, and also to those found in a work of mediocre aesthetic quality in the Museo del Prado (P-2470), attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger. A visual comparison of the two tuchleins in the Museo di Capodimonte, The Parable of the Blind Men, signed and dated 1568, and The Misanthrope, which are the only two works in this technique universally accepted as by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, reveals a notably similar technique and manner of painting13.

The tuchlein of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day has almost no under-drawing due to the manner in which works on this support were executed, i.e. directly or “alla prima”. Among the few corrections are some minor ones to the wooden support of the scaffolding that some of the figures are attempting to climb in order to get closer to the right side of the barrel, and to one of the rear hooves of Saint Martin’s horse. The back of the barrel has an interesting pentimento: before painting the barrel’s outline, Bruegel completed the lower part of the figure in the white shirt and waistcoat who raises a beer jug in order to drink from it. This part of the figure was concealed by the red pigment used to define the form of the barrel and has only now become visible due to the paint becoming transparent as a result of wear to the picture surface.

It is not surprising that the painting is not in perfect condition, precisely because it was painted using this very fragile, delicate technique, and its physical state is in fact similar to other 16th-century tuchleins that have survived to the present day. The fact that the paint has not adhered well to the support – again typical of these works – has resulted in losses to the entire pictorial surface (particularly notable in the area of Saint Martin and his horse), while the extremely large re-lining applied in the 20th century has caused distortions to the original support that have affected some of the figures. The adhesive used for the re-lining has penetrated the highly porous support and paint surface and this fact, together with an earlier application of polyester varnish, has altered the matte, velvety appearance that should be typical of tuchleins, resulting in a darkened and inappropriately shiny surface. An x-ray taken at the Prado allows for a better appreciation than is possible with a surface examination of the way in which the artist applied some of the paint strokes, particularly in the outlines and above all the draperies, using rapid, confident brushstrokes typical of Bruegel the Elder. The x-ray also allows for an appreciation of the painting’s true physical state and reveals that many of the areas of surface paint loss are relatively minor. This is clearly evident in the landscape at the upper left with a port city and boats not visible to the naked eye, as well as much of the city gate and the building to its left.

12 A. Philippot, N. Goetghebeur and R. Guislain-Wittermann, “L’adoration des mages de Bruegel au Musée des Beaux Arts de Bruxelles. Traitement d’un ‘Tuechlein’”, Bulletin de l’Institut Royal du Patrimoine artistique, XI, 1969, pp. 5-33. Back

13 In May 2010 the present authors had the opportunity to make a close study of the tuchleins in the Museo di Capodimonte, which were taken out of their display cases. However, no studies have been undertaken to date on the supports and materials used in these two works, nor are there any x-rays or infra-red reflectography images that would allow for a comparison with the linen support of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day. Back

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