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Monday, February 2, 2015

Jacques Maroger

Jacques Maroger's chicken and egg dilemma, 1950, (title unknown).
There are a number of false assumptions people in general, (and even many artists) make about art. For instance, we often think of the old masters as having been experts at draughtsmanship, anatomy, observation, painting technique, etc. (and they were). But did you know that artists before the early 1800s where also very adept at chemistry, especially as applied to making paints, varnishes, mediums, and virtually everything (except water) which came into contact with the brushes? The artists made these items themselves, often quite literally on the kitchen stove. (Think Leonardo da Vinci). Another false assumption is that for an artist to have had a lasting influence he or she needed to paint hundreds of paintings in order to attract students and followers over the course of his or her lifetime. However, some quite influential painters of the past have often painted little and taught even less. Jan Vermeer left behind only about thirty-five reliably attributed paintings over his career. So far as is known, though he had eleven children, he had no students, not even one of his own kids. Yet his influence in the coming centuries could be said to be second only to that of Rembrandt. What do these two have to do with one another? They both are illustrated in the career of the early 20th-century French painter, Jacques Maroger.

Jack Maroger Self-portrait, ca. 1960
Maroger died in 1962 leaving us a distressingly meager oeuvre of work yet during his lifetime he attracted many students and dozens of followers. And, though he lived and worked well within what we'd term the "modern" era of art history, like the old masters, he was quite the expert on chemistry. In fact he made a name for himself as much in that area as in painting. Ever hear of Maroger's Medium? If you have, you're probably an oil painter, and you've probably never used it, and you probably have no idea what it is. Actually it's a nasty little concoction which the old masters used to brew up on the back burner of the kitchen stove (or charcoal brazier) containing mastic beads (likely the earliest form of chewing gum), turpentine, linseed oil, and a small amount of lead. Although the old masters, and most of Maroger's followers made their own medium from this stuff, don't (as they say) try this at home, especially inside your home (it stinks to high heaven). Besides, it's available from high-end art suppliers for about $25 per (5 oz.) tube.
Maroger's Medium and Mastic Varnish as available today
Linseed oil tends to darken oil colors as
it dries and ages. With black oil this
darkening has already occur
If you're an oil painter you're probably familiar with mastic varnish, which is made by dissolving tiny drops of the dried resin of the Mastic tree in highly refined turpentine (no heating involved) over a period of one or two days. This result is a clear liquid (above) which has a limited shelf-life (a few weeks). It's sometimes used as a final varnish over oil paintings. The second ingredient is black oil, made by cooking linseed oil almost to the boiling point when it turns a dark amber, then adding the lead (this is one nasty brew). When the two main ingredients are combined, they form an amber gel which is then used in small quantities (around 10%) to make the oil paint more luminous, workable, and to speed drying time (as little as 24-house depending upon the pigment). I've purposely not listed a recipe for any of this stuff; I don't want to be responsible for anyone burning down their house (heated too high, black oil bursts into flame).
Jacques Maroger (pronounced ma-ROSHZ) was born in 1884. In 1907, he began to study under Louis Anquetin, a lesser-know colleague of many of the Impressionists and especially the Post-impressionists. In his latter years Anquetin became quite interested in studying the work of the Flemish masters, and it is in this endeavor that we find his having influenced the young Maroger. Like the Flemish masters, Maroger was an excellent draughtsman and an exquisite painting technician. Inasmuch as such skills were not much in vogue in Paris during the 1920, very likely to make ends meet, Maroger found work at the Louvre Museum in Paris as Technical Director of the Louvre Laboratory. He was also a professor at the Louvre school of art and, as the director of the Louvre Laboratory, naturally involved in the restoration and conservation of the museum vast art treasure.

Trying to write about the feel of Maroger's Medium is like describing air.
It was during this period Maroger became interested in the "secret" formulas and painting techniques of the old masters, particularly the medium they used in achieving their lustrous results. In pursuing his studies, Maroger discovered there was not one but several (as many as six) such oil medium formulas, largely dependent upon geographical areas and historic eras. During the early 1930s, Maroger began to publish his findings. In 1937 his discoveries, knowledge, and technical expertise won him the French Légion d'honneur. However proud this may have made him, he was not so proud as to recognize the right time and opportunity to get the hell out of France as Hitler and WW II loomed over much of Europe. In 1939, Maroger emigrated to the United States.
Only through an extreme close-up such as this can one get a feel for the smooth workability of the paint which Maroger's Medium allows. (Full version, below, left.)

Sample example (not by
Maroger) of a painting
using Maroger's Medium.
He found work as a lecturer at the Parson's School of Design in New York. It was not the most prestigious institute of higher learning in the country, but there he attracted his first followers, artists such as Reginald Marsh, John Koch, Fairfield Porter and Frank Mason. A year or two later he moved on up to a professorship at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where he had the enviable job of starting a school of painting from the ground up. There Maroger's followers called themselves the "Baltimore Realists," including such artists as Earl Hofmann, Thomas Rowe, Joseph Sheppard, Ann Didusch Schuler, Frank Redelius, John Bannon, Evan Keehn, and Melvin Miller. The group name is quite telling insofar as Maroger is concerned--he hated Modern Art.

Maroger's Studio (detail),
John Bannon
After the war, Maroger's book came out, The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Old Masters. In it he detailed the "secret" formulas of the various old masters as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their painting mediums. His trademark Maroger's Medium was the formula favored by his beloved Flemish Masters. Other formulations used various types of lead, raw linseed oil, walnut oil, turpentine, water, even beeswax. They also used varying cooking regimens as well. Critics during his own lifetime attacked Maroger's research, questioning it's importance. Most of Maroger's "secrets" were not so much lost or forgotten but simply ignored with the advent of modern paint manufacturing procedures. More sharply, however, they questioned the archival negatives. In most cases, any deficiencies were found to have resulted in improper preparation of the formula or using it in too large of quantities. Today there exists several paintings dating back as far as two-hundred years in which the use of painting mediums identical to Maroger's were documented. In each case, the works are in near mint condition. Some of Maroger's own works are now approaching sixty or seventy years of age showing no sign of yellowing, cracking, scaling, or any of the other persistent difficulties which have long perplexed art conservators. Maroger spent the final years of his life in a small gingerbread-style studio built for him by a wealthy benefactor on the grounds of Loyola University where to this day, his cottage remains a classroom studio.

Still-life with Corn Husks, and Gourd, 1945, Jacques Maroger


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