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In the five-year project Down to the Ground, (sponsored by NWO – Free Competition Humanities), art historians, conservators and scientists investigate the impact of coloured grounds.
Down to the ground

Ground layers are applied to prepare supports for painting. Their colours have a profound effect on painting methods and the visual characteristics of finished pictures; an effect that increases as paintings age. In the Renaissance, painters used white grounds. Coloured grounds originate in late 15th-century Italy and spread North around 1550. They gave rise to a new way of painting, with an emphasis on tonality and chiaroscuro, culminating in for example, the work of Rubens and Rembrandt.

In Down to the Ground, changes in style and technique will be studied in tandem, examining the ways they interlink during this important period. Our approach also investigates the setting in which coloured grounds spread, influenced not only by cultural and economic developments, but also by Early Modern science.

PhD 1 focuses on the spread of coloured grounds, PhD 2 on the role of ground colour in the painting process, a postdoc project will develop innovative non-invasive depth-resolved spectral imaging instrumentation (DRSI) to support research into visual and optical characteristics and colour changes. Interdisciplinary methodology workshops organised at key moments in the research programme will foster a robust evaluation of technical art history methodology. This research will conclude with a much-needed standard reference work (book) that provides insight into the complex mix of cultural and technological factors that allowed coloured grounds to develop, disclosing their influence on the character, methods and visual appearance of Netherlandish Golden Age paintings. The project starts in January 2019.

Project team

  • Moorea Hall-Aquitania (PhD candidate, UvA)
  • Lieve d’Hont (PhD candidate, UvA)
  • Maartje Stols-Witlox (project leader, co-promotor, UvA)
  • Ella Hendriks (promotor, UvA)
  • Erma Hermens (promotor, Rijksmuseum/UvA)
  • Elmer Kolfin (co-promotor, UvA)
  • Roger Groves (co-promotor & postdoc supervision, TU Delft)
  • Abbie Vandivere (team member, Mauritshuis/UvA)
  • Andrei Anisimov (postdoc supervision, TU Delft)

Research partners

  • Mauritshuis The Hague
  • Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
  • Frans Hals Museum/de Hallen Haarlem
  • Statens Museum/CATS Copenhagen 
  • KMSKA Antwerp
  • National Gallery London
  • RKD The Hague

More information

Dr. M.J.N. (Maartje) Stols-Witlox

Principal Investigator

Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research