Sub Rosa: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

sub rosa

By Susan Lucke, Registrar & Collections Manager at the AD&A Museum

Uploaded May 28th, 2020

In the Summer of 2016, the AD&A Museum presented Sub Rosa: Behind the Scenes at the Museum. This was the collective brainchild of the Museum staff and proved to be one of our most successful endeavors. We explored the concerns that we wrestle with every day in our individual professional roles and in the course of our joint efforts to uphold our mission of education, exhibition development, and collection care.

We turned typical exhibition expectations on their head by including works not normal-ly shown because of their poor condition or questionable provenance. A selection of the Museum’s Old Master paintings were installed facing the wall, giving viewers a unique vantage point. A lighting installation elucidates some of the innumerable ways feelings may be evoked, or particular exhibition themes can be emphasized by light alone.

So please join me as we enjoy a second exploration of this fascinating exhibition.

Questions of Attribution

Ahhh, Rembrandt…..the Museum is lucky to own fifteen Rembrandt etchings; however, through careful study, scholars have determined the etchings to be restrikes, or prints produced from Rembrandt’s original copper plates a hundred or more years after his death.

Rembrandt frequently issued numerous “states,” or versions of the same print with varying degrees of alterations to the plate. Making their way into the hands of various publishers, many of whom made changes to them in order to improve their well-worn condition for further use, many of the plates were reconfigured.

Attribution is tricky and in order to make accurate assessments, scholars compare prints in question to those of secure attribution, examine and date the type of paper used, and the collector’s watermarks found within the paper. Detailed here are why the Museum feels the particular etchings are restrikes and or copies.

Rembrandt van Rijn attributions

Sub rosa 1

Self Portrait with Velvet Cap and Plume, 1638

Self Portrait with Velvet Cap and Plume, 1638, is a photographic reproduction.

This self-portrait is one of many in which the artist represents himself in the dignified, fanciful dress of a wealthy artist. The first clue that this print is a copy is the unusual, purple-colored paper used, which dates from the late nineteenth century, and due to its flimsy quality, has cracked, rather than torn. This print is not a restrike, but rather a photographic reproduction.

Sub rosa 2

Landscape with a Cottage and Large Tree, 1641

Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Cottage and Large Tree, 1641, is most likely a copy as it has been horizontally reversed. Rembrandt produced only one state of this etching and the Museum’s restrike (top) includes dark shadows in the trees, which are not evident in lifetime impressions of this etching.

AD&A Museum Lifetime Impression

Suba Rosa 4

Jan Lutma, 1658

Rembrandt’s third state of Amsterdam silversmith, Jan Lutma, 1658 is a restrike, executed in the late nineteenth century from a plate in the possession of Parisian publish-er Henri-Louis Basan.

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detail of Jan Lutma, 1658. See the added hatching.


After Rembrandt’s death, the third and final state of the etching was heavily re-worked by the Polish etcher Michael Plonski, who later sold it to Basan. As you look at Lutma’s portrait, Plonski’s added hatching to repair the drypoint and to enhance the appearance of texture where the plate had been worn down.





Conservation Issues at the Museum

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The Hopi Snake Dancers, (Back) 1919

Conservation is a critical part of proper collection stewardship. In 1991, a large-scale Fernand Lungren painting, The Hopi Snake Dancers, 1919, was donated to the Museum in an exceptionally fragile condition. Storing such a large-scale work that can’t be shown regularly is costly and problematic considering the Museum’s cramped storage facilities. Measuring 82 x 142 inches, the Lungren painting is an ongoing concern and highlights how museums must balance collection stewardship with the reality of conservation costs.

To illustrate the problems of this large scale canvas, the Museum’s Design Department suspended The Hopi Snake Dancers from the ceiling, allowing visitors to walk around the work to fully appreciate first hand some of the issues. It was also a way to see the underlying image.

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The Hopi Snake Dancers, (Back, detail) 1919

The painting has been stabilized by a conservator, evidenced by the tissue paper covering the surface, which can be seen in this image by the lighter colored surface area.

Looking at the Backs of Paintings

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Who knew the reverse of a painting could be so fascinating???

Though normally hidden from view, the reverse (verso) can provide evidence about a painting’s provenance, or history of ownership. It may also offer insight into an artist’s practice, or reveal restoration techniques and conservation history. Labels, seals, and stamps may reveal information about the sale and exhibition history. But how do you install works of art so the viewer can adequately explore a painting verso?

A selection of Old Masters works from the Museum’s Sedgwick collection was made and the Design Department installed them in one of two ways: against the wall and on free-standing pedestals.

sub rosa 10

Giovanni Bellini, Virgin and Child Before a Landscape, late 15 C


Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin and Child Before a Landscape, late 15 C., was positioned on a pedestal and then stabilized in place by a metal armature; not really holding it, not really suspending it.

The Museum’s Juan de Flandes, Portrait of an Infanta, 15th C. Was installed with its face to the wall showing a number of labels.

Labels affixed to this work provide a history of where the painting was displayed. The red starburst label indicates that this painting was available for purchase at the Ameri-can Art Galleries at Madison Square South, New York, as part of the sale of the William M. Laffan Collection on January 20, 1911.

The auction catalogue for that sale specifies that the painting, then misidentified as a Spanish Saint Dorothea, was purchased by Robert S. Minturn for $800. Later, it turned up in the collection of Robert B. Minturn. The two labels above attached to both the frame and the panel reveal that this painting was exhibited at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, where it was lent by Robert B. Minturn, Fran-cis M. Sedgwick’s uncle, in 1934.

Sometimes labels can be more confusing than helpful.

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Ludolf Backhuysen, Riverscape, (back) 17th C.

Barely discernable on the verso of Ludolf Backhuysen’s Riverscape, 17th C., are numbers and letters, including a typewritten “RGNE” on the torn label at left. The identification of the numbers across the top is also unknown. A faint, handwritten inscription down the right edge reads “Bakhuysen,” referring to the painter of this work. The painting is an oil on panel, and at a later date was reinforced by a method known as cradling.


The icing on the cake for any exhibition is the lighting. It’s possibly the most important element of any exhibition as it can make a work look better or minimize its importance. As with all tools, lighting can make magic or sour a great show.

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From left to right:

2700K        3000K       4000K       5000K

The above screenshot illustrates not only how lighting affects one’s perception of a work of art. As seen here, there is a range of color temperatures available in lighting. Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin (K). The color temperature of a lamp or bulb describes how the light appears when the human eye looks at the illuminated bulb. The lower the Kelvin, the warmer the light appears. In this installation, the lights ranged from warm (2700K) to cool (5000K). Selecting the right lamp for museums is important because these color temperatures alter our perception of colors and thereby affect the works of art on view. The Museum selected the 3000K lamp because we found it to strike the right balance, not too warm, not too cool.

Sub rosa 19

The image above demonstrates how advances in technology continue to change the way we, literally, see art. The two beams of light visible here underscore the differences between LEDs (left), and older halogen incandescent bulbs (right).

These lights differ in many ways, namely in their beam spread, energy usage (watt-age), and the output of light (lumens). See how they compare.

The light cast by the LED is of an even and predictable quality with smooth transitions as it fades out towards the edge between the light and the dark. This light is 90% more energy efficient. Only 10% of the energy is wasted as heat. Our typical museum LED flood lamps provide brighter light levels but with minimal energy output.

25 degree beam spread, 3000K,1250 lumens= 99.44 candles, 19 watts
The halogen incandescent light is of an unpredictable and random quality with a jagged transition that fractures at the edge between the light and the dark. This older light technology converts only 10% of the energy into light while the rest is lost as heat. Over time, this heat breaks down the filament or lighting element inside the bulb and makes the light more amber in color as the bulb ages.

30 degree beam spread, 2850K, 550 Lumens= 43.75 candles, 150 watts

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