Carol J. Purtle
To many, the golden strands penetrating the windows of a
Gothic Roman church in Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation illuminates
an otherwise dark painting. But to Dr. Carol J. Purtle, this
brushstroke sheds light on a time the world knows little about.
For nearly 31 years, The University of Memphis art history
professor has been focusing on 15th century Northern Europe
and its most famous painter, Jan van Eyck. The art of this
time is commonly referred to as "Netherlandish"
even though it describes works produced in areas that are
now France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
"In this particular period," she says, "we
have so little written material that the painting tends to
be the document. So the more we know about the painting, the
more we can find out about the time in which it was painted."
Purtle examines van Eyck's works through paint analysis and
infrared technology, while looking for Romanesque and Gothic
symbolism in his art to help unravel historical mysteries.
Using these methods to study his paintings, she has determined
what she believes to be his compositional practice, or how
he composes a painting. Her theories have proven true in subsequent
studies, and now she looks for these characteristics in all
of his paintings.
OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART IN WASHINGTON, D.C.
Dr. Purtle conducted an extensive study of Jan van Eyck's
The Annunciation housed in the National Gallery
of Art in Washington, D.C.
Purtle's use of paint analysis strips a specimen of paint
from an artist's work. Upon examination, the order of the
paint layers can be detected as well as paint textures, composition
and types. From a paint analysis of The Annunciation, Purtle
was able to see that the golden design of one of the character's
dresses in the painting was not metallic as it appears. Van
Eyck had saved all of his metallic material for the ray of
divine light that shines through the church's window.
Purtle found that the back wall of the church in The Annunciation
revealed even more significant secrets when viewed as infrared
Infrared cameras detect the carbon in a painting and produce
a picture similar to that of an X-ray. The images are projected
on computer screens where the work can be pieced together
like a mosaic through the use of different software programs.
Purtle, as well as most art historians, uses infrared technology
to view a painting's under-drawing. This grayish, wash drawing
would be painted on a panel and shown to the patron requesting
the art before final adjustments were made. "It is like
a sketch, or rough draft," she says.
The infrared images of The Annunciation expose van Eyck's
original plan of having an unadorned church interior. In the
painting's final version, numerous historical and religious
pictorials had been added to the church's back wall. Through
close examination, Purtle concluded that each image had been
carefully selected by van Eyck to expose the religious beliefs
of the time as well as their basis.
Purtle determined that the eternal light descending upon
this wall was van Eyck's way of fusing the two views of the
15th century Northern European church - one as a structural
building and the other as a genealogical institution of people.
This wall, she explains, was also designed in two architectural
styles to signify the passage from the old Jewish law to that
of the new law under Jesus Christ.
For The Annunciation project, Purtle collaborated with art
historian Dr. Melanie Gifford of the scientific department
at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where
the painting is housed. Purtle focused on interpreting The Annunciation's examination results while Gifford concentrated
on physical findings.
views the slides for the new "15th Century Renaissance
Art: North and South" class she began teaching in
Purtle and Gifford's article "Van Eyck's Washington
Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition"
became the cover story for the 1999 March edition of The
Art Bulletin. Their work has also been published in other
venues, and their findings were presented at the Van Eyck
Symposium at the National Gallery in London.
Since then, Purtle has lectured and conferred with museum
curators in Germany, England, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands
and the United States. She presented a talk on van Eyck's
Madonna in a Church at Berlin-Dahlem in Belgium and has begun
her 25th year at the University teaching the new class 15th
Century Renaissance Art: North and South.
And though Purtle is now a recipient of a U of M Alumni Association
Faculty Research Award, the opportunity to make a significant
contribution to history and art is what she finds to be the
most rewarding aspect of her profession.
"I continue to think that somehow this is important,"
Purtle says. "I realize that may seem a private perspective,
but there are those in the world who are vitally interested
in these developments. This is important art and an important
time period. I think the more we find out about both, the
more enjoyable and rewarding they will become, not just for
me, but for other people as well."