(Paintings) Technical Study of a Painting Attributed to Honoré Daumier at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

by Mary Schafer

By Keara Teeter posted 05-25-2019 11:15


“Technical Study of a Painting Attributed to Honoré Daumier at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.”

Speaker: Mary Schafer; Co-authors: Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louisa Smieska, John Twilley, and Arthur Woll


French artist Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) created a large quantity of theater-motif artworks during his career, and Exit from the Theater is a work that would have been produced during his peak period.  This artwork was acquired by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA) in 1932 and remains in their collection to the present day.

Exit from the Theater, oil on panel attributed to Honoré Daumier (c. 1860s); image from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

A technical study of this painting was recently pursued to answer questions about the attribution and to better understand the artist’s palette.  Concerns about the Daumier attribution’s authenticity first arose in 1958 when scholastic study identified inaccuracies in the playbill that is posted on the wall in the background (inaccuracies included the wrong number of acts and names of some actors).

Exit from the Theater was painted on a reused mahogany panel; Daumier struggled financially during this period and his use of repurposed cabinet panels and other artist’s paintings has been well documented.  X-radiography examination of Exit from the Theater provided useful information about the composition, specifically the presence of a stippling which indicates the artist experimented with textured grounds.  Investigating this further, Mary Schafer and her co-authors replicated this texture on a test panel by priming it with a printmaker’s brayer.  This test panel was examined with X-radiography and compared to radiograph details from NAMA’s Exit to the Theater, the National Gallery of Art’s French Theater, and the Art Institute of Chicago’s The Print Collector.  The stippling appeared consistent across all four panel paintings, and thus, provides evidence to support the artist’s use of printmaking tools.  X-radiography was not able to provide information about the panel painting underneath Exit to the Theater because the X-rays were not able to penetrate Daumier’s lead white ground.

Scanning electron microscopy (SEM-EDX), Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), and polarized light microscopy (PLM) confirmed the presence of iron earths, red lake, vermillion, lead chromate, Prussian blue, cobalt blue aluminate, cobalt phosphate violet, bone black, lead white, barite, calcite, gypsum, dolomite, and zinc white.  These pigments would have been available to Daumier during the 1860s and are consistent with pigments identified in other firmly attributed paintings.

To better understand and visualize the painting underneath Exit from the Theater, NAMA collaborated with the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) to perform macroscopic XRF (MA-XRF) mapping.  This analysis provided precise details about the original landscape such as the presence of mountains, foliage, and human figures holding spears.  With this information, the authors linked this landscape scene to 1860s publications that contained sketches and print illustrations about the British explorer John Hanning Speke (1827-1864).


AIC slides that show: (top) the MA-XRF distribution of arsenic and tin containing pigments in the NAMA panel painting
(bottom) British and French illustrations about Speke’s expeditions.

Exit from the Theater has a well-documented history of published references. The present multi-analytical study and ongoing curatorial research at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art aim to contribute new findings that may help establish Exit from the Theater as a securely accepted work by Daumier.  For additional technical information about this study and other works by Daumier, please reference:

  • Smieska, Louisa, John Twilley, Arthur Woll, Mary Schafer, and Aimee Marcereau DeGalan. “Energy-optimized synchrotron XRF mapping of an obscured painting beneath Exit from the Theater, attributed to Honoré Daumier.”  Microchemical Journal, vol. 146 (2019): 679-691.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.microc.2019.01.058
  • Burnstock, Aviva, and William Bradford. “An examination of the relationship between the materials and techniques used for works on paper, canvas and panel by Honoré Daumier.”  Studies in Conservation, vol. 43, sup.1 (1998): 217-222. https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.1998.43.Supplement-1.217