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magazine home > archives > fall 2001 > features

Dr. Carol J. Purtle, an expert on 15th century artist Jan van Eyck, forges more paths on her quest to unravel the history of an era in Northern Europe.

A Stroke of Genius
by Kristen Epler

Dr. Carol J. Purtle

Dr. 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.


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 images.

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.

Purtle with art slides
  Purtle views the slides for the new "15th Century Renaissance Art: North and South" class she began teaching in the fall.

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."

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