The day we understood a Goya painting thanks to an old photograph

The day we understood a Goya painting thanks to an old photograph

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One of Goya’s best paintings is ‘Perro semihundido’, which was about to disappear. They moved it from the wall to the canvas. They wanted to sell it in France and no one bid for it. So the owner of it donated it to the Prado museum. Today it is considered a masterpiece and everyone doubts its meaning. But if we stop to contemplate the photographs that Jean Laurent took of him in 1874, we will understand everything.

One of the best photography schools is the Prado Museum in Madrid. Anyone who is interested in the image should wander through its rooms at least once a year. In addition, it has the largest collection of paintings by Goya, a painter who is considered the first ‘photojournalist’ by many authors.

The painting ‘Perro semihundido’ is part of the ‘Black Paintings’ that adorned the famous Quinta del deaf, the large estate where he lived his last years before exile. It was one more of those paintings that he captured on the walls of the country house, as a rehearsal, entertainment or decoration.

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When Baron d’Erlanger, owner of the estate, decided to transfer them to canvas to sell them, much pictorial information was lost, causing many viewers and scholars to wonder what the dog was doing. That if it was an allegory, that if it was a reflection of Spain, etc…

From wall to canvas

The ‘Black Paintings’ they have not had a simple life. And the fact that we can now contemplate them in the Prado Museum is little short of a miracle. The owner of the estate, a French aristocrat who bought the estate from the painter’s heirs, had the idea of ​​tearing the paintings off the wall using the strappo (tearing) technique.

This technique was the fastest and cheapest which was then known to bring paints to a canvas. The problem is that it is very aggressive and caused loss of paint, among other problems. In fact, it is considered a dangerous, drastic and irreversible technique that should only be done in extreme cases.

First you had to clean the wall, then apply a lacquer to settle the pictorial material. Next, they cover the entire drawing with fabrics soaked in glue that are glued to the wall, respecting its shape. And when everything has dried, it is time to take off the assembly that will remove the entire paint layer.

When the photographers and the impressionists saw the same way.  The exhibition at the Thyssen museum

All this material is spread over the chosen surface and with hot water remove the tail and the fabrics to present them as a canvas.

For this reason, the ‘Black Paintings’ they lost a lot of information. They had to be restored when they arrived at the Prado Museum because no one wanted to buy them. Those were other times and its original meaning could have been lost. In this series we find the famous ‘Saturn devouring a son’ or ‘Duel with sticks’. And of course, the ‘Half-sunken Dog’ totally changed its meaning. Nobody knew what the poor animal was doing.

Jean Laurent’s photographs

It is not known who, but one of the best photographers of the time, Jean Laurent, was commissioned to photograph the paintings in their original location. It may have been because of his relationship with the Prado Museum, since he was in charge of documenting the paintings in the art gallery, or because he was one of the first to work with electric light, that is, with a flash.

The figure of Jean Laurent is fundamental in the history of Spanish photography. He documented the most important engineering works of the time and was in charge of photographing a large part of the artistic heritage of Spain. In fact, they have finally just recognized his figure by giving his name to the school that occupies his mansion, a story that we tell in Xataka Foto.

Half-sunken Dog Juan Laurent Photograph made by J. Laurent in 1874 of Francisco de Goya’s painting Semi-sunken Dog, before his removal from the wall of the Quinta del Sordo, or Goya’s Villa. The original negative is kept in the Ruiz Vernacci Archive, in Madrid.

One of the most interesting things in the technical process that followed to get the photographs. The rooms were dark and the sensitivity of the collodion plates very poor. And to be able to photograph them, there was no choice but to illuminate them. Y the electric light is something that was giving its first throes then.

It should be noted that Jean Laurent is one of the first to start using it, and above all, the only one that still has photographs and testimonials in the newspapers of the time. As a curiosity, on June 12, 1869 he organized an electrical show in the El Retiro park in Madrid:

The magnificent lighting by means of electric light that the people of Madrid had the opportunity to admire last Sunday at the Retiro, was commissioned from the well-known photographer Mr. Laurent by the commissioner Mr. Albareda. The four large lights that attracted so much attention during the aforementioned night, were powered by more than 200 Bunsen elements, only thus understanding the great intensity of those, which allows reading a newspaper two kilometers away.

The process of taking with electric light

Those unruly and dangerous battery-powered lights were the ancestors he used to photograph, in August 1874, the ‘Black Paintings’. He worked with glass plates impregnated with wet collodion, very insensitive to light, in dark rooms.

So he moved all his electrical equipment, which consisted of voltaic arc lamps and Bunsen-type batteries, to illuminate the famous paintings with continuous light. The process was not easy.

Jean-Laurent Illustration of ‘Jean Laurent and the electric light’ by Carlos Magariños Laguía

First, the glass plates had to be sensitized with wet collodion, an iron sulfate with the texture of varnish. Before it dried, it had to be exposed in the camera, which had to be prepared.

Before raising awareness, Jean Laurent and his team would prepare the bunsen type cells. They were non-rechargeable batteries with a diluted solution of sulfuric acid that only gave 1.9 v. These batteries powered a arc lamp. These types of lamps generate an electric arc (which is what gives off light) between two electrodes that were made of carbon, therefore, they ended up burning very quickly.

So once the glass plate was sensitized and inserted into the chamber, the lamp had to be quickly turned on and with a dimmer to keep the light intensity constant, the plate removed and revealed immediately… And he had to do all this 14 times , each one by the paintings of the Fifth.

What Jean Laurent’s photographs revealed to us

Now we are left with those historical photographs in many ways. And in the one he made of ‘Half-sunken Dog’ we discover, high up, following the direction of the dog’s apparently lost gaze, something very similar to two birds fluttering.

Half-sunken Dog Juan Laurent

Are they two birds?

Thanks to photography, a mystery that made us see the painting as something negative, as a premonition of the great painter about the future, it was simply a hymn to curiosity, to love for animals, to pure nature.

'Las meninas': what we photographers learn from painting

That they decided to tear down the house on the Quinta del Sordo was unforgivable, that they carelessly ripped the paintings off its walls was savage, but photography was already there to tell us how things were. Goya’s dog was, plain and simple, a happy dog.

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