Dr. Ron Spronk: Technical Art History

3 photos of identical painting with different filters.
Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.

Technical Art History allows us an almost intimate look into a painting’s genesis, as if we are granted a temporary glimpse over the shoulder of the artist. Its most amazing quality is that it can often help to a better understanding of the artist’s intent.

Dr. Ron Spronk is a technical art historian. He is particularly interested in the creative process of paintings, which can be examined through the use of various imaging technologies, including infrared reflectography, macrophotography, and X-radiography, as shown here from left to right in a detail from Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow. Infrared is used to reveal underdrawings, the sketches that painters used to prepare their compositions. Macrophotography allows for the close study of paintings in extreme resolutions, in this project up to 1250 DPI, enabling microscopic magnifications. X-radiography reveals the different absorption patterns of X-rays of the materials that were used. Some pigments, such as lead white or vermillion (which contains mercury), will absorb X rays, while others will remain X ray transparent. When studied in unison, such documentation allows for the study of an artist’s artistic process. These details of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna show, for example, that Bruegel made several revisions to the initially underdrawn composition. The location of some of the dogs was changed, and the lower figure was initially not included, but a later addition. This hunter was painted over the already finished background, what explains that more X rays are absorbed here. The tree trunk is relatively dark since that was painted as planned, and carefully left ‘in reserve’ from the snow. (You can click here to make this detail interactive.)  Dr. Spronk was instrumental to the production of two highly popular web applications that provide general access to such images. The application Closer to Van Eyck is a comprehensive resource on the current restoration of famous Ghent Altarpiece (1432). The site Inside Bruegel, on the twelve panel paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Vienna, was developed in conjunction with the 2018-2019 exhibition Bruegel, The Hand of the Master, at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.