Mama’s Big Bargain

My mother, Elizabeth Morgan, sewed just about every stitch of clothes we ever wore, woke up at 5:30 AM to read her history books, wrote letters to the editor, and served as president of the P.T.A. (she never said what went on, except she’d never do that again!). Everybody tells me how much I look like my mother, but I only wish I had her steam engine energy. Here she is in a photo my Dad took of her; it was her favorite.

Mama reading about British watercolor artists, about 1985.

She was no delicate, retiring Southern lady; oh, no. Mama was loud, opinionated, well-read, and did not suffer fools gladly. When I saw the character of Mrs. Patty Hogg on the Amy Sedaris show, I had to chuckle: Mrs. Hogg reminds me a whole lot of her:

During our childhoods, Mama dragged me and my little sister, Connie, through dozens of antique shops: there were trips to Spring City, Dayton, and Cookeville, but her favorite was Clements’ Antiques in Hixson, Tennessee. Long before it became the biggest antique auction house in the South, it began as a crowded, dusty little shop deep in the wilds of Hamilton County. Mr. and Mrs. Clements seemed to be immeasurably ancient; they knew my mother by name and greeted her warmly every time she showed up to trawl through their sterling silver spoons, china dishes, and furniture, always, always looking for a bargain. At some point, Mr. and Mrs. Clements retired and passed on their inventory to their son, Wallace, and after a few years, he opened up the huge warehouse store pictured below. He filled it with 18th and 19th century antiques and art, some of it bought out of upper state New York summer houses being jettisoned in the sixties by wealthy New Yorkers who wanted more fashionable vacation houses on the Hamptons.

The statues

There was (and still is) a line-up of marble statues across the front of the building which fascinated me when I was little, probably because some of them were partly naked. Most of the statues were high-quality 19th century reproductions of Greco-Roman works. It looks as if there aren’t quite as many as there used to be, but there is Diana (missing her good right arm and her bow), two versions of the Three Graces, and a Chinese lion. The statue I remember the most isn’t in this picture, but that’s because it stood on the left side of the storefront: a giant woman with a billowing cloak shielding her strangely miniature teenage daughter. The giant lady was Niobe, protecting her children from the wrath of the gods after bragging too much, a stern warning that Mama would have ignored. Inside, along with rooms full of antique furniture (no junk whatsoever), there were Victorian grotesqueries made of dead people’s hair, artfully arranged under glass bell jars; an enormous canopied bed from 16th-century Italy that stayed in the shop for years (I so wanted to jump on it but Mama would’ve had my hide); baskets full of Stereopticon photos and viewers, always good to while away an hour; and upstairs, shelves that held thousands of leather-bound 18th and 19th books, where I would hole up to read while Mama shopped.

When we were small, every visit was prefaced by a stern warning from Mama: Do not to touch anything!  We only misbehaved one time: I can’t remember if it was me or Connie, but one of us picked up an expensive porcelain plaque of two little angels, one blonde and one dark, just like Connie and me, and it got broken in two. Mama was mortified, apologized profusely to Mr. Clements, then took out her checkbook from her purse (a sturdy little suitcase covered in handmade needlepoint, another bargain from somewhere). I can’t remember if we got a spanking or not, but the little angels were not a bargain. Of course, Mama didn’t throw the angels away; she went to her drawer full of glues, varnishes and stains and fixed the broken angels so well you could just barely see the crack. I wish I still had those little angels now.

Mama stopped by just about every week on the way back from our piano lessons at Cadek Conservatory of Music in Chattanooga. My mother loved classical music, but she probably didn’t love classical music quite as much as she loved antiques, and she didn’t love antiques quite as much as she loved a good bargain. It was a battle of wits between my mother and the antique dealer, but she had immense respect for Wallace Clements: Mama said he knew his stuff. Mama knew her stuff, too, as you shall see.

The story of the Big Bargain happened during the summer when I was about 15, around 1966.  We stopped at Clements as usual, and Mama found something: a dark bronze bas relief sculpture, about 2’x 1′ (actually, it’s only 8 5/8 x 16 7/8 “), with the faces of three people on it. She said she had gotten a terrific bargain, a wonderful bargain! That didn’t mean much, because we all know she didn’t buy anything unless it was a bargain, but she was especially happy about this particular bargain for two reasons: it was signed by an artist whose name she recognized, a fellow by the name of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and she paid just $5.00 for it. http://(

As we got into the car, Mama said, I think he sculpted one of the statues in the Capitol Rotunda! Actually, as nearly as I can figure out, he didn’t– here’s a list of the sculptures in the Rotunda, and his name isn’t on it: – but she was close: he was one of the most famous American sculptors of the late 19th century. She probably read about Saint-Gaudens in Antiques Magazine, which she read from cover to cover every month, or in one of the many art and history books she read. Here’s a picture of Saint-Gaudens at the height of his career:

When we got home with the plaque, Mama was worried because it had a pronounced bend in one corner; my most distinct memory of that day is watching her on the back porch trying to straighten it out with a hammer. She balanced the plaque on the wood shingle wall of the house and gave it a few light taps, but then she chickened out because she was afraid of breaking it. After that, the plaque hung over Mama and Daddy’s double bed and there it stayed for the next twenty five years. A few times, I climbed up on the bed during the day and tried to read the script between the solemn woman and man:


Gilder Family Portrait

To say I was uninterested in Augustus Saint-Gaudens at age 15 would be an understatement, even though I already knew I wanted to be an artist someday. The plaque seemed dark and uninviting to my undeveloped teenage tastes, severely plain and almost grim. The lady on the left was pretty but unsmiling, and wore a dress with little pleats along the neck; she seemed to be staring straight ahead, not seeing the man with a big mustache who was sitting across from her (he was staring at nothing too), or the child with long hair in the middle. I had not a clue who they were, but Mama found out, or maybe she already knew. During the years the plaque hung over her and Daddy’s bed, she read all she could about them and their circle of friends in New York City. She found a biography of Winslow Homer, the American painter, and that was when she learned that Homer had been in love with Helena De Kay before she married Richard Watson Gilder! Oh, Mama loved a romantic story more than anything, but I was busy living my own love stories and getting my heart broken more than once, and didn’t pay much attention to her at all. I wish she was here now so we could talk about it over coffee.

Helena De Kay didn’t marry Winslow Homer, although their long correspondence remains.  She did take oil painting lessons from him and learned to draw, being in the first life drawing class at the National Academy of Design. Winslow was apparently a man of few words, and he lost her to Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, who worked with Helena at the offices of Scribner’s Monthly Magazine and married her in 1874.

Here’s two photographs of Winslow Homer:


In the first one he’s a nice looking fellow with appealingly sad puppy-dog eyes, but in the second one he looks as if he’s gone a bit sour. That must have been after Helena dumped him, which she probably did right around the time he painted this picture of her:

Winslow also painted this picture of women on the beach which was considered slightly scandalous at the time, because Legs:

The blonde squeezing her hair out is supposed to be Helena, too. My father painted a very nice copy of it because her long golden hair resembled my sister’s so much.

Here is a photograph of Richard Watson Gilder in 1873:

Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, I must say, has really got it going on here. Yay, Helena. You go, girl. He became the editor-in-chief of the Century Monthly Magazine, and he was the Chairman of the New York Tenement House Commission whose report was responsible for the Tenement House Law of 1901 requiring designs that allowed more light and air into tenement apartments. He and Helena also wrote a lot of letters to one another when they were apart; I guess today’s equivalent would be a thumb drive with all a couple’s text messages, which isn’t quite as romantic. Richard wrote poetry to Helena, which she illustrated for him in his books. Oh, and they hung around with all the NYC intelligentsia and had regular Friday night salons at their house that were very popular. They were friends with Emma Lazarus, Cecilia Beaux, the famous portrait painter, President Grover Cleveland and his wife, William Merritt Chase, John La Farge, Helena Modjeska, Stanford White, Eleonora Duse, and William and Henry James. Gilder and de Kay were the models for the characters Thomas and Augusta Hudson in Wallace Stegner‘s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Angle of Repose (I’ll have to find that book). They had seven children: the oldest one died in infancy (there must be the source of the faint sadness that always struck me about the portrait), and one of their daughters died in young adulthood, but Rodman de Kay Gilder, the little boy with long hair in the plaque, grew up to became a writer like his dad and married the daughter of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

But back to the tale of the Big Bargain! Looking through her papers, I see that in 1974 she contacted the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, just to see if they might be interested. There was a bit of bait dangling, but nothing came of it.  Then one day in 1988, Mama opened up her new issue of Antiques Magazine and saw an ad for Graham Gallery, located at 1014 Madison Avenue in New York City. The ad said they specialized in fine American art, and were looking for works by a long list of artists, one of them being Augustus Saint-Gaudens. There was a phone number to call, and this time Mama wasted no time. Yes, they were interested, very interested. Photographs were taken out on the patio.

Mama, enterprising lady she was, went through Antiques and wrote some other galleries in NYC, including Hirschl & Adler, just to get a feel for what the piece might be worth; they were interested too, but apparently after negotiating not quite as interested as Graham Gallery. So one fine day, Mr. Cameron Shay, representative for Graham & Sons, Inc., flew down to Chattanooga and came to my parents’ house on Signal Mountain to pack up the Saint-Gaudens piece and take it back to New York. Daddy fried him a mess of freshly caught fish for lunch, and while he sat at the table with them, Cameron said he had plans to go to Lookout Mountain and meet Mr. Lupton, scion of the Coca-Cola fortune, to get a piece of art from him too. Mama was in the Big Leagues! She got a check for $60,000 from James Graham & Sons, Inc, and an ad with “her bronze” appeared in Antiques Magazine, January 1989.

How do you think Mama went out and spent her money? Did she buy jewelry? A fur coat? A new car? No, she most certainly did not; Mama was not a flighty person who did unwise things. She invested it carefully in a bond fund and paid the undergraduate college tuition of every one of her four grandchildren with it.  Now, none of them went to Harvard (except my nephew, Andrew, but that was as a postdoc fellow); Mama believed a state university provided a perfectly good education, and she was right, for the most part. My son, Alex, told me, “When I hear about someone else’s student debt it’s like hearing about someone getting murdered. I’m glad it wasn’t me, but I hate that it happened to anybody.”

Buoyed by her fabulous art sale, Mama became a bit of a collector, and managed to wrangle almost all of those purchases into profits, too, although nothing was ever as spectacular as the Saint-Gaudens bas relief. She found a nice seascape by Charles Henry Gifford, a painter in the Hudson River School, but it wasn’t in his Luminist phase, so it only went for $17,000; a pair of little oval Luminists with indecipherable signatures; a small watercolor of some faraway beach, possibly the Isles of Kerguelen, by Captain Robert James Elliott, a British watercolorist (that’s what she’s researching in the photo); some interesting oil paintings by women artists, including a California scene by Joanne Cromwell; and an adorable, if saccharine Cupid by Egon Sillif Lundgren, a 19th century Swedish kitsch painter. She probably put all that money away in a bond fund, too. There were a couple of dozen pieces she bought and sold, and she kept careful records of every expense, from relining to shipping, and calculated exactly how much she came out ahead. A couple put her in the red, but not very many. She had a good eye; I did not. One time she took me along with her antiquing and I bought an oil painting, but when I had it appraised, it was practically worthless. Nevertheless, I helped her sell off her little collection, and got to know some of the gallery owners.

This little watercolor of a Scottish castle is one I miss:

When I told my friend Leslie about my mom’s fantastic bit of luck, she came back to me and said, “Julie, nobody believes me! Nobody believes that your mother bought a sculpture for $5.00 and sold it for $60,000!” It’s hard to believe, I know, but it’s true.

Before I wrote this post, I did a bit of research to see if I could find out where Mama’s bronze was now, and here it is at Hirschl & Adler, NYC:

It turns out that after Graham & Sons bought it in 1988, it went into the collection of Richard J. Schwartz, the CEO of the Jonathan Logan clothing line, which included Simplicity Patterns! Oh, I wish so much Mama was still alive so I could have told her this! I still have Simplicity Patterns she bought and used for our dresses. She would have been thrilled. Here’s a link to Mr. Schwartz’s estate sale, which was quite a doozy from the looks of it:

Graham & Sons, Inc., has moved around the corner, and is now Graham Shay 1857 Gallery:  It looks as if Cameron Shay owns and runs it now, and they still have works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for sale.

Lately, Saint-Gaudens has been in the news; the Shaw Memorial, in Boston, dedicated to the first volunteer Union African-American infantry unit in the Civil War, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, has been defaced numerous times over the last several years.  Mama wouldn’t have liked that at all, but she wouldn’t have given a hoot about the Confederate statues being torn down across the South. A lot of the history books she read were about the Civil War, and she was extremely vocal and adamant that the war had been about slavery, and even wrote several letters on the subject to the Chattanooga papers, usually when some Confederate sympathizer wrote saying the war was about states’ rights.  We were taken on vacations throughout the old Confederacy to various plantation houses so Mama could look at the furniture and woodwork, but we were also shown the cabins in the back and gravely told why they were there. In South Carolina, we were shown the docks where slave auctions were held. Mama’s great-grandfather was from McNairy county in West Tennessee, but rather than join the Confederates, he led the 6th Tennessee Cavalry for the Union forces. Family legend has it that he had a bounty put on his head by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the KKK, who lived over in the next county.

If I told you that my mom bought a wall plaque for $5.00 at an antique shop, and that my parents were the first in their families to go to college, you wouldn’t think much about it. But if I told you that I grew up in a house with a bas relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens over my parents’ bed, you would think my family very privileged indeed, and you would have been right, of course. In many, many ways we were very privileged, and I knew that even when I was a little girl in Pikeville, Tennessee. But I realize now that our truly unique privilege was symbolized by the wall of books, so heavy they broke the main joist of the house. My mother’s greatest privilege was her mind.

The Saint-Gaudens bas relief of the fortunate Gilder family, so severe and pure, faintly veiled in sadness, that hung over Mama and Daddy’s bed for so many years – in a way, it symbolized them, more than Mama could have known when she first picked it up in her hands and looked it over. She and Daddy were fortunate people, more fortunate than most, but after Mama died in 2011, I don’t think Daddy ever really smiled again.

Here are some other links to the people and places in this post:,Boston%20and%20the%20Adams%20Memorial%20in%20Washington%20DC.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy reading this:

Painting Icons: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

An earlier version of this post appeared in my Live Journal blog Dureresque on September 14, 2010.

I’ve painted a number of icons over the last twenty years. Here’s a small one I painted a while back: Pantocrator copy

It was supposed to be in the Russian Pskov style. Really, the Pskov icons were so rough looking, though.

Here is an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa I painted, in 2008, in egg tempera on a wood panel I gessoed with gesso I made myself.  Black Madonna 001This was something I did in my old studio.  I had already started the icon a while back and hadn’t finished it because the gold leaf kept flaking off.  I had thought I could fudge and use fake gold leaf but it wouldn’t stick until I finally used real gold, and a lot of it.  It finally developed a sort of matte finish but it still looks like real gold and thus very nice.

Black madonnas are something of a fetish of mine, I guess.  Cathedral of the Black Madonna by Jean Markele is a book I have several times.  He suggests that the black virgins in Europe are related to ancient sun goddesses, which appeals to me.  Another good book is The Cult of the Black Virgin by Ean Begg, published by Arkana Books.  Then there’s Longing for Darkness, by China Galland, which is more of a travelogue memoir of her pilgrimage to Czestochowa to see the original icon.  There’s a new, scholarly book out that I want to read:  Pilgrimage to Images in the Fifteenth Century:  The Origins of the Cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa, by Robert Maniura.  It is pretty pricey and I’ve been putting it off, but just typing out the title makes me want it again.  I may have to try to get it by interlibrary loan.

I also discovered in my internet trolling that Our Lady of Czestochowa is associated with a Voudoun loa in Haiti, Mambo Ezili Danto or Erzulie Dantor.  There she is considered very fierce, and sometimes is shown carrying a knife.  She is the protectress of single mothers and gays.   Here is a link to an interesting blog which goes into great detail on the relationship between Erzulie Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa:

I painted the drapery in a different style than the original icon; it’s based on much earlier Byzantine icon called The Virgin Hodegitria, which is very angular and stylized.  The name means “The Shower of the Way.”Hodigitria

The existing icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa is painted in a primitive style and has been reworked numerous times.  Here is a picture of the original icon from Poland: OriginalBlackMadonna I probably should have changed the draperies and made them smoother.  Now that I look at it again, I did at least try to make the blue draperies a little more flowing than the original Hodegitria source. The gold border is actually larger on my picture but it wouldn’t all fit on the scanner screen.  She’s downstairs now sitting in the hallway on a chest of Native American relics my father dug up many years ago.  Like I said, the gold is real gold, and the green background on mine is real malachite.  I had to tone it down with yellow ochre because it was so green.

I wasn’t going to include the scar on my icon’s face (the original Madonna of Czestochowa is scarred, supposedly from a Hussar’s sword), but a mark appeared on the paint there as I painted. Yes, a mark appeared on Her face and I could not paint it out. Strange. It was as if She had an agenda and She was going to look the way She intended. But I never got her facial expression exactly right.  She looks a little mean and sour where the original icon looks sad and sweet.  It’s a very subtle expression.

Well, now I have to go get dressed to work at UTC.  Today I’m drawing a cat skull, inside and out.  Usually I don’t have to get dressed up to work, which is great, but today I’m going to see a really cool show at the UTC gallery — two figurative painters, one of whom studied with my idol, Odd Nerdrum.  They appear to be quite the bomb from the color card I got.   I’ll report later!

[Note: I put Her out in my studio one night on Open Studio Night, and she seems to have disappeared forever. I should have known better to leave her out without a frame, just the perfect size to slip under a jacket. She sits on someone else’s mantel now, stolen, and looking sour and pissed off about it. Then, months later, a man from Brazil contacted me, to find out if I was just kidding about the mark appearing on Her face. I told him, no, I wasn’t kidding. He made some cryptic comments about Mary being raped by the Roman soldier Pantera, which I have heard before, and asked for a high-resolution scan. I gave it to him, even knowing he is probably now selling prints on the streets of Rio. She moves where She wills.]

The comments attached are from my LiveJournal blog, from my old friend Rosemary.





What identifies a black Madonna? I.e. how is that different from any other painting of the Madonna?

Posted on Oct. 4th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC) | Link | Thread | Reply | Delete | Spam | Screen | Freeze | Track This


black madonnas


None of the madonnas you are likely to see in Renaissance or medieval paintings from Western Europe are black madonnas; they are usually blond or brown-haired with fair skin, as was considered most beautiful. The black madonnas are either statues associated with specific churches throughout Europe, or icons from Eastern Europe. They seem to have a mysterious aura. Some of the statues have very black skin; the icons tend to have golden or darkish complexions; all of them have European features. The traditional explanation was that they were dark because they were very old, but some of them were obviously made black in the first place, and were even re-darkened periodically, and were the objects of pilgrimages, especially by women. The modern explanation is that they hark back to pagan goddesses.



Black Madonna


Oh the Black Madonna….I call her the icon who is herself an iconoclast. Could it be that just a glimpse of her could shatter the smug illusions of those who view humanity through the lens of partial, exclusionary validation; those who are safely couched in their Anglicized image of this dusky Semitic desert-dweller? Could she spark an epiphany in such a person to consider viewing humanity as one common soul and that there can exist goodness, purity and worth beyond one’s own clan? I believe that this has most certainly happened, how may times and to whom is unknown, but in contemplating this possibility we are reminded once again that art is not only candy for the eye, but it also has the potential to heal the psyche and the soul. Julia, if I may be allowed to offer my own assessment of your lady’s expression, I would say that it does not reflect anger but a plaintive, although not overly accusatory plea to the onlooker to allow her to have such an effec


Making Verdigris pigment and Copper Resinate (A Comedy of Errors)

Verdigris was a pigment commonly used in oil painting from the 15th to the 18th century, but which fell into disuse after that, when modern green pigments began to be developed that were more dependable and nonfading. Verdigris oil paint is well known to have many drawbacks which the Old Masters certainly suspected: they wrote that it was incompatible with many other pigments, even to the extent of ruining brushes that had been dipped into it once; and more importantly, that it has a tendency to turn brown or black under certain conditions which cannot be predicted reliably. However, even the masters might not have fully realized the extent to which verdigris darkened, since changes may have taken place slowly over a period of centuries. As evidence, there are later paintings of galleries (a popular genre in the 18th and 19th centuries) which show known Renaissance paintings with green landscapes that are now brown!

Not all verdigris glazes have darkened; the grasses and herbs in Van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb remain as bright as day they were painted (see detail below, showing the glorious copper resinate glaze still intact after 500 years).

Mystic Lamb Detail showing copper resinate glaze

But other works, even by the same painters, have darkened, sometimes ruinously. Below, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, sometimes attributed to Jan van Eyck: 893px-Attributed_to_Jan_van_Eyck,_Netherlandish_(active_Bruges),_c__1395_-_1441_-_Saint_Francis_of_Assisi_Receiving_the_Stigmata_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe grass and trees behind St. Francis were almost certainly not originally painted in such subdued tones. Gothic and most Early Renaissance painters almost never favored a subdued palette. But in this case the faded landscape is quite harmonious with St. Francis’ robes and the warm brown rocks.

Various recipes, from Theophilus onwards, promise an “eternal” verdigris which will not “die,” but these claims were probably overblown. And many of these recipes are now disputed by some modern art historians. The chief question is whether Renaissance painters such as Van Eyck used verdigris ground in cold oil, or whether they cooked the verdigris is a coniferous resin such as Venice Turpentine, dissolving it into a glaze referred to as copper resinate. Some modern art historians claim that recipes for copper resinate glaze were only intended to color metals, not for painting, and that van Eyck and contemporaries never used copper resinate, but instead made glazes out of linseed oil, or oil mixed with cold resin.  The question has not been resolved.

With this controversy in mind, I decided to experiment myself and attempt to make verdigris pigment and then copper resinate glaze. To manufacture the pigment itself, I used a recipe from Theophilus for “Salt Green:” “If you want to make a green pigment, take a piece of oakwood, as long and as wide as you wish, and hollow it into the shape of a little chest. Then take some copper and thin it out into sheets of any desired width but of a length sufficient to span the [inside] width of the chest. After this take a flat pan full of salt, and, pressing the salt down firmly, put the pan in the fire and cover it with [glowing] coals for the night. Next morning grind the salt very carefully on a dry stone. Get some thin twigs and place them in the above-mentioned chest in such a way that two thirds of the cavity are beneath [the twigs] and the other third is above them. Smear the copper sheets on both sides with pure honey and sprinkle the ground salt on them. Then lay them next to each other on the twigs and cover them carefully with another piece of wood, fitted for the purpose, so that no vapors can escape. Next, in the corner of this piece of wood drill a hole through which you can pour in heated vinegar or hot urine until a third of [the chest] is filled; then block up the hole. Put this chest in a place where you can pile dung all over it. After four weeks pry off the lid, scrape off whatever you find on the copper, and keep it. Put [the copper] back again and cover it as above.”


honey and salt with a copper plate


twig scaffolding

I used small glass casseroles with plastic lids for my “little chests.” Otherwise I followed Theophilus pretty closely: after making a porous scaffold of sticks in the casserole and covering the copper sheets with honey and salt, which I ground to a very fine texture (ok, I used a blender) I laid them on the scaffolding, then I heated several different kinds of vinegar (Theophilus didn’t specify what kind of vinegar to use) because I wanted to investigate if the verdigris was different using different types of vinegar.


dipping a copper plate into the honey


salting the honey-coated copper plate


copper plate with honey and salt on twigs in the glass dish

copper plate with honey and salt on twigs in the glass dish


red wine vinegar ready for heating

red wine vinegar ready for heating

With that in mind I used apple cider, red wine, and white wine vinegars, along with urine, since Theophilus mentioned that too. I warmed each of the vinegars and the urine in the microwave, and then poured them each into separate casseroles and labelled them, then added the copper sheets with honey and salt, propping the sheets over the liquid on a scaffolding of sticks. Theophilus didn’t specify what kind of wood to use so I used small sticks from my garden. I then closed the casserole and, instead of putting them under dung (which I assume was intended to heat gently), I put them on my deck in Tennessee’s blazing midsummer sun.

labelled pots with copper plates inside bake in the sun

labelled pots with copper plates inside bake in the sun

After a few weeks, I could see that a green crust was building up on the copper.

lovely verdigris before I looked underneath

lovely verdigris before I looked underneath

However, when I tried to lift out the copper plates, I was appalled to see that in addition to the green crust, a thick, bright red pigment had oozed out of the copper beneath the salt green!

Red pigment oozes from underneath the verdigris

Oh noes!!!

Apparently, the Made in China copper sheets I had purchased at Hobby Lobby contained something other than copper, possibly a red pigment. (I even wondered if I had accidentally made Minium! All I know is it stung my fingers when I was foolish enough to touch it barehanded.) At this point, I feared the whole project lay in ruins, and even thought about throwing the whole, probably toxic, mess out. There seemed to be no hope I would ever get the red pigment off the green verdigris. But I was too lazy to haul it to the special city dump for toxic materials, so instead just left the copper sheets lying in the sun to dry out.

cheap copper plates from Hobby Lobby, intended for model trains

don’t buy these

After a few more weeks, I checked the copper sheets, and amazingly, the red pigment that had leached out had almost completely receded back into the copper, leaving the green pigment intact and almost untouched! I also noticed that the different vinegars had produced slightly different greens. The urine had produced less green but it was of a deeper color. But since the fiasco with the red pigment had deterred my enthusiasm somewhat, and there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference, I scraped the green off all the copper sheets and mixed it together in a bowl. And I was able to do this without getting any of the residual red pigment, which had dried into flakes, into the mix. It was almost too much to have hoped for.

All the verdigris in a bowl

All the verdigris mixed in a bowl

I ground the fresh verdigris a little bit. Then I put all the green pigment into a glass container and covered it with fresh vinegar, stirred it, and let it settle.

evaporating the vinegar

evaporating the vinegar

As the vinegar evaporated, I stirred it, mashed up lumps, and let it settle more.

Verdigris, slightly ground in a glass dish ready to evaporate more

Verdigris, slightly ground in a glass dish ready to evaporate more

My plan was to let it evaporate and produce the distilled and purified verdigris written about by Merrifield. This process took a lot longer than I expected, a couple of months, but it finally (mostly) evaporated away until I had a smaller bowl of verdigris sludge. I attempted to grind it additionally and, although some reached a fine powdery state, some small clumps remained. There was also a mixture of colors, from paler to dark, although this might have had more to do with the fineness of the grind. The finely ground verdigris seemed to be paler.

When dry, I had about 1/4 cup of verdigris. It was probably a mixture of basic and neutral copper salts, along with copper chloride, but since I didn’t check the chemical composition I don’t know for sure. Probably the verdigris used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was similarly mixed in composition.

At this point, I attempted to grind the verdigris to use as pigment, which proved more difficult than I expected. I never was able to get all the chunks and lumps out no matter how long I ground it. For grinding I used a glass pestle and a bowl, which didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.  Next time I’ll use a glass muller. Cennini spoke of grinding verdigris in vinegar, which made sense, but that didn’t seem to help much either. The verdigris was surprisingly hard, and the honey I’d used made it somewhat slippery and gooey. Next time, I’m forgetting the honey and salt, since I couldn’t see why it made a better product.

dried verdigris before grinding

dried verdigris before grinding

after grinding

after grinding a bit

Finally, I was ready to grind the verdigris into various media: glair made from egg whites; egg tempera medium made from egg yolk; linseed oil; and Venice Turpentine, a coniferous resin made from the European Larch tree. I painted samples of all these media ground with verdigris on a slightly defective wood panel gessoed with rabbit skin glue and marble dust. The results were varied. Some visible clumps remained in the various media. And it dripped a little.


I was not able to produce a glaze similar to the cooked resinate glaze with either cold resin or linseed oil.The verdigris ground in boiled linseed oil turned dark almost immediately, and remained gritty and opaque. The cold resin also failed to yield a really transparent glaze since the verdigris never really dissolved. It was much paler than the cooked resin glaze.

The glair was surprisingly good, although opaque and pale. I wondered if the honey had improved the verdigris for watercolor. On the other hand, verdigris in egg yolk turned into a translucent mayonnaise that did not appear to be suitable for tempera painting at all, although it was quite pretty.

verdigris mayo

verdigris mayo

I prepared a cooked copper resinate glaze by combining Venice Turpentine and verdigris and heating it gently. This produced a much greener, very transparent glazing medium, although once again, clumps remained. After a day or so, however, I noticed that the cooked Venice Turpentine medium had settled and thickened a lot and the color and texture had improved. Yet another fortuitous accident! Most of the pigment had sunk to the bottom of the bottle, and the resin was now darker, very smooth and glassy with no clumps remaining. When I tried it on the gessoed panel, it produced a beautiful, perfectly transparent, glassy green glaze.

I experimented to find modern substitutes for verdigris: I thought thalo green and viridian might be most similar, but they were much brighter to my surprise. I painted samples of both pigments in oil and also mixed with the Venice Turpentine. Viridian and a small amount of yellow ocher in Venice Turpentine was the most like the verdigris copper resinate and might make an acceptable modern substitute, although nothing seemed as transparent and perfectly grassy-green as the verdigris.

At this point, I entered the project in Stella Nova Arts and Sciences Fair (a medieval re-enactment arts event for those readers not in the SCA), and received a number of helpful hints from the judges.

I continue to observe the painted samples to see if they deteriorate. Thus far the verdigris dissolved in hot Venice Turpentine is still bright and glassy, although a bit of Christmas glitter is sticking to it now. Sorry. The verdigris in linseed oil is dark and opaque and seems to have darkened further and spread. The verdigris in glair is surprisingly fresh looking , although quite opaque and lighter than the other samples.

Trying to see if I could improve the ratio of undissolved verdigris in the copper resinate, I re-ground the verdigris in the cooked resin and managed, with a lot of elbow grease, to get the pigment ground into a much finer powder. I then recooked the Venice Turpentine with the pigment and walked away from the hot plate for a minute with almost disastrous results: it boiled up and turned a coppery brown! Ruined yet again, I thought, but keeping my cool, or being lazy, I just put it back into the bottle to let it settle. But my luck held once again. After a day or two, a miracle occurred: the coppery brown (which rather resembles the brownish verdigris on old paintings) settled in a layer between shades of various green and the glaze floating on top returned to its former green glory. Whew! If you look closely, below, you can see the brownish overcooked layer.

re-cooked resinate

re-cooked resinate

But still most of the verdigris remains undissolved, and the transparent copper resinate is really no greener. After re-reading one researcher’s results making copper resinate, I realized that I probably didn’t use nearly enough resin, although I followed the instructions in Merrifield. It’s not a matter of mixing, but of actually dissolving the pure pigment molecules into the resin. One modern researcher used the same recipe and had to add powdered rosin to the mix, and managed to dissolve more of her verdigris. I will try that next time.

Then more reading led me to a new conclusion: Noting the description of Venice Turpentine as a “soft resin,” and remembering that modern research hasn’t pinpointed exactly which resinous substance Van Eyck used anyway, I realized he wouldn’t have used a soft resin like Venice Turpentine. I suspect he used amber varnish to dissolve his verdigris. This might explain his (usually) superior results. Many writers on painting mediums of the masters have long suspected he used amber, anyway.

Per the judges’ recommendations, I’m using the copper resinate I’ve made thus far to paint several little samples of Van Eyck landscapes with underpainting and green glazes to show how it would have been used. Here is a little patch of Heaven from The Mystic Lamb which I plan to try to copy:

a tiny bit of the Mystic Lamb

a tiny bit of the Mystic Lamb

It shouldn’t be too hard but I think I’ve already done it wrong in my first layer:

too dull, right?

too dull and dark, right? Even for underpainting.

Perhaps the underpainting had verdigris mixed into the lead tin yellow, instead of the dull green made from black and lead tin yellow I used. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. Sigh. (Note: I’ve been in my studio trying to re-create the scene, and it’s harder than I expected, as usual. I’ve wiped it off twice already. Extra long sigh.)

Plans this summer include making another batch of verdigris using pure copper sheets from Jerry’s Artarama, leaving off the salt and honey and simply using white wine vinegar. After that, I’m making some amber varnish, which ought to be a much harder resin, and dissolving the finely powdered verdigris in that.

The other day I measured an already gessoed panel in my studio, and something made me look up online the exact dimensions of The Arnolfini Wedding. I knew it. My panel is within a quarter of an inch. And the bride’s dress is glorious, copper resinate green. I’ve always loved that painting.


  1. “Changing Pictures: Discoloration in 15th – 17th –Century Oil Paintings, by Margriet van Eikema Hommes, Archetype Publications, 2004.
  2. “Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting: including the first complete English translation of the De Mayerne Manuscript, B.M. Sloane”, by Theodore Turquet De Mayerne (author), Donald Fels Jr. (author), published by Alchemist, Inc., Floyd, VA, 2001.
  3. “Aspects of Painting Technique in the Use of Verdigris and Copper Resinate,” by Renate Woudhuysen-Keller, from “Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice,” preprints of a Symposium, University of Leiden, the Netherlands, 26-29 June 1995, Edited by Arie Wallert, Erma Hermens, and Marja Peek, Published by The Getty Conservation Institute.
  4. “The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting,” by Daniel V. Thompson, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1956.
  5. Perspectives on the Painting Technique of Jan Van Eyck: Beyond the Ghent Altarpiece, by Noelle L.W. Streeton, Archetype Publications, London, 2013.
  6. “The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters,” by Jacques Maroger, Hacker Art Books, New York, 1979.
  7. “The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting with Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters,” by Max Doerner, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1934.
  8. “Artists’ Pigments, Volume 2, edited by Ashok Roy, 1993, National Gallery of Art and Oxford University Press, New York.

10. Medieval and Renaissance Treatises on the Arts of Painting, by Mrs. Mary P. Merrifield, Dover Publications, NY. 1967.

11. Theophilus: On Divers Arts, Translated from the Latin with Introduction and Notes by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, Dover Publications, NY, 1963.

12. Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters, by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, Dover Publications, NY, 2001.