Danish painters prepared canvases with leftover beer: study

  • Danish Golden Age painters had an unusual source for some supplies: breweries.
  • The masters used the byproduct of brewing beer to prepare their canvases so the paint wouldn’t seep through, according to new research.
  • Scientists expected to find glue made from animals, but instead detected traces of wheat and grains.

NEW YORK (AP) — 19th-century Danish painters may have turned to an unusual source for some of their supplies: breweries.

Researchers examined paintings from the Danish Golden Age and found traces of yeast and grain. This suggests the painters were turning to by-products from local breweries to prepare canvases, they reported in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

Study author Cecil Krarup Andersen said they embarked on the project in search of glue made from animals.

“Then, by surprise, we found something completely different,” said Andersen, a paintings conservator at the Royal Danish Academy.

Leftover mashing would have been spread onto the canvases as a paste, creating a smooth surface and preventing paint from seeping through, Andersen explained. Today, this priming process is usually done with a white mixture called gesso.

The authors said knowing what was on the webs would help preserve them.

In the study, the scientists looked at the works of two of the first master painters to come out of Denmark – Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, considered the father of Danish painting, and Christen Schiellerup Kobke.

To peek beneath their scenes of floating ships and family portraits, the researchers used pieces of canvas that had been cut from the paintings during an earlier conservation project.

The team analyzed the small bands to determine the types of proteins they contained, explained lead author Fabiana Di Gianvincenzo, a heritage scientist currently at the Slovenian University of Ljubljana.

Their results showed that seven of the 10 paints contained mixtures of yeast, wheat, rye and barley proteins – some of the key ingredients in a good Danish beer.

Beer itself was a precious commodity back then — it was even used to pay salaries — so artists probably didn’t pour actual drinks over their work, Di Gianvincenzo said. Instead, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which prepared canvases for its artists, likely purchased leftover mash from local breweries.

This type of recycling was not uncommon, Andersen added: Artists also used scraps of sailcloth for their canvases and boiled leather scraps for their glue. Records from the time also suggested that beer products may have been used in the arts.

The research connects two elements of Danish culture, Andersen said.

“What does Denmark stand for? Well, beer is one of the first things some people think of,” Andersen said. “But also, this particular era and these particular paintings are deeply rooted in our history as a nation.”


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