The Paston Treasure: A Painting Like No Other

The Paston Treasure: A Painting Like No Other


“The Paston Treasure” is a
painting like no other. Made in the third quarter of the seventeenth century by an unknown artist, it belongs to the genre of still-life painting. But its unusual appearance invites
questions about how it was made. Why, for example, is the face of the girl so pale? Why is the lobster pink and not red? Why does the composition look
more like a collage than a painting? Close inspection of “The Paston Treasure” shows that it was meticulously planned and systematically executed, with each precious object
selected for inclusion and carefully studied by the artist. Treasures belonging to the Pastons,
a prosperous Norfolk family, were set alongside stock items
from the artist’s portfolio such as the fruit, candle, flowers, and animals; as evidenced by the parrot, which appears in this other work by the same artist. The choice of symbolic objects in “The Paston Treasure” places it in the vanitas tradition: the painting is a meditation on the fragility
of life and the certainty of death. Every aspect of the painting attests
to the artist’s experience and skill. His process was swift and adroit, beginning with the most important
components of the still life, moving outward to the figures
and animals, other objects, and finally, the table, column, and curtain. But something went wrong. The materials in the painting have
not retained their original properties. In part, this can be explained by the
natural deterioration of the pigments, such as the bright red vermilion on the parrot’s tail and the final red and yellow glazes
that hold the composition together. The delicate nature of these pigments has resulted in strange shifts between light and shadow: Dazzling yellows have now faded to muted brown, and vibrant reds are now grey. However, there are other oddities
which are not so easily explained. X-radiography reveals what lies
beneath the surface of the painting, such as this ghostly figure on the right. Who is this woman and why is her face
obscured by a large silver dish? Further analysis is needed if we want to
understand these complicated changes. Macro X-ray fluorescence scanning
shows the chemical elements that make up “The Paston Treasure”. This helps us to understand the paint mixtures that were used and how the artist applied them. It also uncovers more about those passages that were overpainted or suppressed. In these digital maps derived from the scans, each element is represented by a color. Copper-based pigment azurite
is shown here in green, and the vermillion in the parrot’s tail is shown in red. A vast array of pigments was identified, many more than a painter at this
time would usually have used. We can only speculate why so many
changes were made to the composition. Did the silver dish suddenly become an object of dispute, omitted in haste and replaced by a portrait, this in turn deemed unsatisfactory? Did the painter abandon his easel, exasperated by a meddling patron who had foisted his own pigments
onto the artist’s palette, which, much like Sir Robert Paston’s alchemical experiments, were only doomed to fail? These are some of the questions explored in “The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World”; an exhibition which examines the history
of a family, their house, their collection, and one remarkable painting in which art and science
were brought together to spectacular effect.

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