Prescribing and Describing Art Technology

By Marjolijn Bol

“To Produce a Gold Color by Cold Dyeing.

Take saflower blossom end oreye, crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to the air, and use it.”

Stockholm Papyrus (Old-Greek, 4th Century AD)

This recipe describing how to dye wool a golden color is just one example of the many sources on art technology that have come down to us as from as early as 2000 BCE. The recipes range from the making and working of parchment, stone, glass, textiles, paper, pigments and colorants – to the production of embroidery, miniatures in books, metalwork, enamels, ceramics, woodworking, panel painting, glass painting and much more. Here on The Recipes Project, readers have already encountered several posts dealing with topics on art technological sources (see hereherehere and hereand more are planned for the future. For this reason the idea came about to develop a series of posts highlighting the current scholarly initiatives and interest into artists’ recipes.

An art technological source can be understood as any material surviving from the past that provides us with information about the history of the materials, tools and techniques used to make works of art – ranging from realia, to the work of art itself, images, texts and audio-visual sources. In the present series of posts, however, we will focus mainly on art technological sources in the form of recipes – or written records of artistic production. Interestingly, research into art technological sources has also triggered the field of historical reconstructions. On the basis of artists’ recipes, scholars attempt to reconstruct certain painting techniques, metalworking methods, lost objects from material culture such as parchment windows or factitious gemstones and much more. These historical reconstructions help scholars better understand the recipe, re-materialize long-lost objects that we now only know through textual sources and provide insight into the ‘original’ appearance of objects that survived in poor or changed condition. As a result, historical reconstructions can offer us a glimpse into the complex processes through which a certain artwork was made.

In recent years, the study of these so-called art technological sources has gained much momentum within the fields of Art History, Conservation & Restoration and the History of Science. In 2002, the Art Technological Source Research Group (ATSR) was established within the International Counsel of Museums (ICOM-CC) providing research into art technological sources with an international scholarly platform. Whereas many more recent initiatives could be sketched out here, I will only mention two more in the context of the present blog series. In attempt to organize and systematize the vast amount of historical artists’ recipes, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin is making a vast database on historical recipes on art technology (‘Colour ConText‘). Furthermore, the importance of research into art technological sources is attested by the fact that, since 2012, the University of Amsterdam has offered  a masters course on the topic. This course in Art Technological Source Research is not only unique because it brings together students from the Conservation & Restoration and Art History courses, but, additionally, the students have the opportunity to study original recipe books collected by and kept in the library of the Rijksmuseum. All students study a particular recipe from a treatise in the Rijksmuseum collection and make a historical reconstruction of the said recipe as part of their studies. We had groups of students attempting to grind and process petuntse stone according to an 18th century recipe for making Chinese Porcelain, while another group attempted to find out the role of spike oil in an 18th century varnish recipe. The students from textile conservation reconstructed the color “violet” from Runge’s Farbenchemie (1842) and, finally, the fourth group of students made a reconstruction of a painted silver vessel according to a recipe from Wilhelmus Beurs’s The Big World Painted Small (De groote waereld in t kleen geschildert, 1692).

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The posts in this series titled Describing and Prescribing Art Technology intend to form a first glance into present-day research into art technological sources. It highlights the special collection of recipe books at the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam with an interview with the head librarian Geert-Jan Koot. Later in the month, Ad Stijnman, a key member of the Art Technological Source Research Group, will tell us a little about the history and research scope of this group, and, finally, Sylvie Neven will offer us a fascinating example of research into artist’s recipe books.


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