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Abundantia: Treasures of the Sea

Hans Makart c.1870-1875

oil on canvas

 40.3 x 105.7cm 

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL 

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This scene depicting the abundance of offerings from the sea was painted by Viennese artist Hans Makart. An academic painter turned celebrity, Makart’s architectural-scale history and allegorical scenes were popular with nineteenth-century aristocrats. This painting is a small scale version of a larger mural produced by Makart when he first moved to Vienna. Originally titled Abundantia: The Gifts of the Land and Sea (1870), the paired compositions gained popularity during a world tour traveling to Germany, Amsterdam, London, New York, and Philadelphia.[1] They are now in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Due to their wide appeal, Makart and his studio later produced multiples of these paintings at reduced dimensions, such as the Art Institute’s painting. It appears that Makart used similar materials and techniques including entirely covering the canvas with a layer of gold leaf. 

The painting has been in the Art Institute’s collection since 1901 and has undergone minimal conservation treatments. It was selected for examination and treatment by curators based on its dull appearance on the gallery walls. Initial cleaning tests showed that the painting had a heavy accumulation of surface grime. After un-framing, it became clear that a full structural treatment of the tacking edge and stretcher would also be required. 

Details during aqueous cleaning. 

I completed an aqueous surface cleaning to reveal the bright and warm tone of the original colors. This has highlighted Makart’s techniques where the gold ground was intentionally left to shine through in translucent passages such as the light pink draperies of the figure on the right. While cleaning, it became apparent that the artist used blue-green colored ink for an underdrawing, which outlines the forms of many figures. The drawing lines are visible through translucent paints and in shapes where the final form did not entirely cover the drawn lines. Infrared examination and photography documented the extent of the drawing, as the colored ink was visible against the gold below. Other paintings and painted sketches by Makart show similar underdrawing. 

Makart Ariadne Detail.jpg

Central detail from a small study on wooden panel shows similar lines of a blue-green ink drawing. 

The Triumph of Ariadne, 1871- 72, oil on wood, 82 x 126 cm, Musée Picardee, Amiens.

[1]See https://www.boijmans.nl/en/exhibitions/hans-makart-s-abundantia-the-depiction-of-abundance-and-fertility

[2]Monkia Faber, Michael Ponstingl, Inspiration Fotografie Von Makart bis Klimt, (Wien: REMAprint-Litteradruck, 2016) 89-122. Translation by Elizabeth Wigfield.

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Detail showing ink underdrawing visible below translucent paints. 

The Treasures of the Sea, 1870 - 75, oil on canvas, 40.3 x 105.7 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, IL.

The figures did not receive equal treatment across the composition. For example, in the group of figures on the right, the artist has clearly outlined many details of the seated woman including her face, neck, drapery, and detailed jewelry. In comparison, the standing woman has received only slight outlines in her lower drapery; both her and the child and putto that surround the central figure have no drawing for the placement of their face or other forms. 

This aspect is particularly intriguing considering that the painting is a scaled copy, measuring exactly one quarter of the original mural. Some historians have asserted that this work was made by a student or an assistant in Makart’s studio. The lines of the underdrawing are smooth and exact, but they lack fluidity. The quality of the line might suggest copying or transfer from an established design, but this does not directly imply that the work is a student copy.

Makart was among the first artists to use photographs as inspiration, employing them through direct replication, subsuming elements into larger historical scenes, and even painting on top of photographic prints of his own drawing.[2] The incomplete nature of the drawing also suggests a transfer method that was not automatic, but rather directly controlled by the artist. One possibility is the pantograph, a mechanical system based on parallelograms which causes the movement of one pen to produce identical movements in a second pen that can be set to an enlarged or reduced scale. Such a process might explain the peculiar, incomplete nature of the drawing especially if it served as a placement guide for a skilled artist. Though not necessary for treatment, this research might help clarify the role of this painting as a preliminary sketch or later copy.

Continue reading about the structural treatment of this painting.