Analysis of tempera paints

Reconstruction and analysis of two tempera recipes used by Cuno Amiet

Subproject to Analysis of tempera paints from the period around 1900

Led by
Ester S. B. Ferreira
Team
Violaine de Villemereuil (Associate Fellow); Karoline Beltinger, Nadim C. Scherrer, Karin Wyss
Partner
Hochschule der Künste Bern (HKB), naturwissenschaftliches Labor des Fachbereichs Konservierung und Restaurierung
Duration
2008–2009

Project description

The so-called tempera paints that were popular amongst artists during the years around 1900 were of varied and complex composition. All of them were initially water miscible and dried quickly and most of them produced water resistant layers upon drying.

In his early years, Cuno Amiet sometimes used homemade tempera paints. In this project special attention was given to two tempera recipes used by him, one based on an egg/oil, the other on a gum/resin/wax binding medium. The project’s aim was to develop an analytical strategy for the identification of individual components in such complex paint binding media.

Two tempera paint formulas were reconstructed based on the binding media recipes mentioned above. The paints were subsequently artificially light aged in order to mimic to some extent the natural chemical alterations experienced by Amiet’s own paint. A combination of analytical methods for the analysis of the individual reference materials and the reconstructed mixture was developed. It included Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), direct temperature-resolved mass spectrometry (DTMS) and gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

Based on Amiet’s correspondence it was thought that one of the paintings he created with the egg/oil-tempera paint medium is Self-portrait with spouse (1899). The study of this painting – on a short term loan from the Museo Civico di Belle Arti, Lugano – presented a unique opportunity to assess whether the reconstructed paint prepared at SIK-ISEA were chemically similar and if it could provide a paint surface with similar optical and physical properties to that of Self-portrait with spouse.

Cuno Amiet, Self-portrait with spouse, 1899, tempera on canvas, 76 x 52 cm (Museo Civico di Belle Arti, Lugano), Detail
The project proved Amiet’s use of egg/oil tempera in 1899. Furthermore it has provided new analytical tools and strategies for the identification of tempera binding media in tiny microsamples from paintings and has shed light into environmentally induced chemical alterations in tempera paints.

The project was supported by:

  • State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (contribution in the framework of COST-D42)
  • Swiss Re, Zürich

Publications

Violaine de Villemereuil, Nadim C. Scherrer, Stefan Zumbühl, Karoline Beltinger, Ester S. B. Ferreira, «Tempera paints in the late 19th / early 20th century works by Cuno Amiet. An interdisciplinary approach», Abstract in the proceedings of the EU-Artech final symposium Van Gogh and Contemporaries, 14–15 May 2009

Ester S.B. Ferreira, Karin Wyss, Violaine de Villemereuil, Karoline Beltinger, Federica Marone, Nadim C. Scherrer and Stefan Zumbühl, «The role of reconstructions in the identification of a wax/resin/gum tempera binder developed by Hermann Urban in 1901 and used by Cuno Amiet in 1902», in: Painting in Tempera, c. 1900, Karoline Beltinger and Jilleen Nadolny (eds) (KUNSTmaterial 4), Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft, Zürich / Archetype, London, 2016, pp. 205–227