From Isolation to Coherence is a five-year research project that focuses on Dutch painting ensembles from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An interdisciplinary research team studies the paintings’ materials and their production and conservation history. In addition, the team investigates the visual coherence of the ensembles and examines their sociohistorical context, both in public buildings and private residences.

Painted chambers as a historical source

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries countless paintings were made for a specific location. Paintings located on walls, ceilings and chimneys, together with the architecture, sculpture, plasterwork and wood carvings were meant to form a coherent whole: an ensemble.

These historic interiors with wall filling, monumental paintings – known at the time as “painted rooms” (geschilderde kamers) or “rooms in the round” (kamers in het rond) – are an important source of information. Not only do they offer us unique insight into patrons’ ideas and lifestyles, but moreover they elucidate how artists translated these criteria into visual concepts. For this reason the ensembles not only form the material source for their own history, but also for the historical identity of our society.

The project From Isolation to Coherence

In the NWO-funded Innovational Research Incentives Scheme (Vidi) project From Isolation to Coherence remarkable examples of these ensembles are studied in depth for the very first time. The project, spanning five years (March 2012 – March 2017) studies the materials, production and conservation history of these paintings, while also giving much attention to their visual coherence and sociohistorical context, both in public buildings and private residences.

This study aims to make an important contribution to the preservation of ensembles; a unique and irreplaceable part of Dutch cultural heritage that has been largely underappreciated and that moreover is threatened by neglect as well as inept restorations and renovations. Presently the artworks still retain traces of their production methods and histories – and this is why it is of the utmost importance that a study of them takes place now.

An integrated approach with an interdisciplinary team

An interdisciplinary team of researchers combines material-technical and art historical research methods. Chemical and physical investigations into the application and aging processes of materials are related to the results of archival research in historical material-technical sources. An important role has also been assigned to stylistic and iconographic analyses of the paintings, and an examination of the sociohistorical context in which they originated.

An increasing number of case studies that presently have been completed in the project shows that in the case of complex art historical questions this integrated method leads to surprising results; results that would not have been achieved with traditional, monodisciplinary methods; either art historical or technical. Our innovative approach also sheds light on questions surrounding present appreciation, presentation, as well as conservation and preservation of the ensembles.

Heritage Studies at Delft University of Technology

The project is led by Dr. Margriet van Eikema Hommes and is housed by the Delft University of Technology in its section of Materials in Art and Archeology: a research group that takes the lead in technical developments in the field of heritage studies. Partners in the project are the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. This collaboration between University, Heritage Agency and Museum provides the ideal opportunity to combine technical research with art history and heritage studies. And, of course, to establish connections between technical innovations and the fields of art historians, conservators and heritage professionals.

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