To collect, preserve, research and communicate – that is what museums are responsible for. Museological research preserves and broadens knowledge of the cultural legacy that is preserved by museums and forms the scholarly basis for collections and exhibitions. Conservation and restoration make it possible for artworks, even extremely fragile ones, to be presented to the public, and preserves them for future generations.
Scientific Research regarding the Collection
A selection of current projects from the areas of research and conservation at the Städel Museum:
Since as early as 2001, the Städel Museum has been systematically researching the provenance of all objects that were acquired during the Nazi era or that changed hands or may have changed hands during this period. The basis for this research is the “Washington Principles” formulated in 1998 at the “Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets” in Washington, D.C., as well as the subsequent “Common Statement”. Since then, art historians have been continuously researching the Städel’s holdings for works that may have entered the collection illegally during the Nazi era. For every object that was acquired after 1933 and can be dated before 1945, an attempt is being made to establish a provenance that is as complete as possible.
More on this topic in the Städel Blog.
In 2021, the focus of provenance research was on individual cases and the digital publication of the provenance history, especially of the Brücke holdings in the Carl Hagemann Collection and the bequest of Ulrike Crespo. A further focus was on the historical reconstruction of the acquisition of the Rimini Altar. In addition, the indexing of the untapped files from the early years of the Städtische Galerie and Ernst Holzinger’s correspondence files from the post-war period was successfully completed this year. At the same time, the transference and recording of the handwritten archive material from the 19th century was also begun. This most valuable part of the historical archive contains, among other things, the records of the founding of the museum and its school of art. In the process, the student assistants of the archive once again recovered evocative finds from the history of the Städel Museum, such as mimeographed copies of sent correspondence from the era of the directors Heinrich Weizsäcker, Ludwig Justi, and Georg Swarzenski and historical photographs of the exhibition of modern art “Vom Abbild zum Sinnbild” (From Image to Symbol) presented in the Städel in the summer of 1931. The scholarly processing of the Roederstein-Jughenn archive was also steadily pursued. The publication of the research results is in preparation.
In 2021, twenty-five major works in the Städel Museum’s Collection of Old Masters were examined with the M6 Jetstream. This took place in the context of the cooperation project of the Städel Museum, the Städel Cooperation Professorship at the Art Historical Institute of Goethe University, the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt, and the Department of Material Analysis of the Technical University Darmstadt, funded by the Dr. Rolf M. Schwiete Foundation.
Macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) analysis with the M6 Jetstream enables the cutting-edge, state-of-the-art technological examination of historical paintings: The X-ray beam penetrates the sample and stimulates element-characteristic X-rays there, which can also leave the sample again from greater depths. This makes it possible to “look through” cover layers, such as those that can occur in paintings, in a non-destructive manner. The MA-XRF scans can thus make certain pigments and their distribution, as well as underpaintings or changes in composition, visible and expand our knowledge of the painting and creation processes of works of art.
The first results of the MA-XRF analyses of the paintings by Adam Elsheimer and Georg Flegel were published in 2021 in the scholarly catalogue of German paintings in the Städel Museum from the years 1550–1725, compiled by Almut Pollmer-Schmidt. In the run-up to the special exhibition “Rembrandt in Amsterdam”, the Rembrandt paintings in the collection were also examined. The MA-XRF analysis produced outstanding new findings on the genesis of the pictures, especially in the case of “The Blinding of Samson”, which were presented at the International Conference “Rembrandt in the Mirror of New Technological Investigations: Paintings – Prints – Drawings” on 21 and 22 January 2022 and presented online for the first time.
Another focus of the technological research of paintings, in cooperation with the Institute for Conservation Sciences at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart, was on testing a new method of infrared examinations with LED panels. By using five LED infrared panels that emit different, clearly defined wavelength ranges of the infrared spectrum, absorption properties of different underdrawing materials can be studied, and the underdrawings as a whole can be made more clearly visible. The infrared images are intended to refine and supplement the existing findings on the Early Netherlandish paintings in view of the planned new edition of the collection catalogue of Netherlandish paintings in the Städel Museum from the years 1400–1550.
Since the end of 2021, the Städel Museum’s holdings of Italian Baroque drawings have been systematically researched for the first time. The focus is on the 17th century, spanning the period from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 18th century.
The greater part of the collection comes from the museum’s founding collection, i.e., from the holdings of Johann Friedrich Städel (1728–1816) and Johann Georg Grambs (1756–1817). This basic stock was repeatedly supplemented by new acquisitions in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Among the nearly 700 works are master drawings by some of the most important protagonists of the Baroque period, such as Annibale Carracci and Agostino Carracci, Guido Reni, Guercino, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
The motifs and functions of the drawings are extremely varied, including, for example, composition studies in preparation for paintings and frescoes, model studies, portraits, and landscape depictions, as well as copies after exemplary paintings. In terms of drawing techniques and motifs, the collection likewise represents a broad spectrum of the schools and art movements of the Italian Baroque period. From this rich collection, some ninety representative works will be selected and comprehensively examined by scholars: The focus will be on the context of origin, attribution, technical features, and function of the drawings. The research project will result in a catalogue and an exhibition, which is scheduled to take place in the spring of 2024. Many of the selected drawings will thus be published and exhibited for the first time. This project focusing on the Italian Baroque drawings fills a gap in the various collection catalogues of specific subgroups of Italian Old Master drawings; in the past, the Italian Renaissance drawings of the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the Venetian drawings of the 18th century have already been dealt with in this way. Each of these projects has been made possible by the Gabriele Busch-Hauck Foundation, Frankfurt am Main, which also supports the scholarly examination and research of the Italian drawings of the 17th century.
Caption: Annibale Carracci, Study of Venus at Rest, ca. 1602, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
In the autumn of 2021, the two-volume, 808-page collection catalogue of German paintings in the Städel Museum from the years 1550–1725 was published by Deutscher Kunstverlag. The publication marks the successful conclusion of the comprehensive study of eighty-two individual works from the collection of German Baroque painting.
Since 2015, this scholarly examination has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and supported by the Städel Museum Association with the Christa Verhein Foundation. As with all previous scholarly catalogues of the Old Masters, this publication is characterised by the close interweaving of painting technological and art historical perspectives. The core of the researched holdings includes the outstanding collection of paintings by Adam Elsheimer. Also worthy of mention are works by Johann Rottenhammer, Georg Flegel, Paul Juvenel the Elder, Johann Ulrich Mayr, and Johann Heinrich Roos, as well as portraits by unknown masters from the legacy of the Frankfurt patrician family von Holzhausen. Particularly with regard to Adam Elsheimer’s main work, the “The Altarpiece of the Holy Cross”, in-depth and – thanks to MA-XRF analysis – fundamental new insights were gained and published for the first time. The project was led by Almut Pollmer-Schmidt, while Christiane Weber carried out the technological analyses of the paintings.
Caption: Adam Elsheimer, The Altarpiece of the Holy Cross, 1603–05, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
“Café Deutschland” is an oral history project about the first art scene of the FRG. It brings together more than seventy interviews conducted by the Städel Museum – under the project management of Franziska Leuthäußer – with artists, gallerists, art historians, critics, and collectors. For the first time, the focus is on contemporary witnesses, the “generation of war children” who, in many cases, grew up in the ruins of German cities and took the path to art in search of intellectual engagement.
After 1945, the German art scene was faced with the task of reviving and continuing a cultural heritage that had been proscribed and destroyed by the National Socialists. Between student revolts and a reunified Germany, a cultural landscape developed, the fruits of which we are still reaping today. It is thanks to the pioneers of the 1950s and ’60s that the Federal Republic of Germany was able to reconnect internationally after a short time and enter into a valuable dialogue.
The aim of the project was to create an overall understanding of past historical moments in the context of the German art scene. The narratives complement, overlap, and contradict each other, enriching the historiography with a differentiated polyphony. The timeframe of the survey ends with German reunification in 1990.
Kehrer Verlag has published a comprehensive volume with transcripts of the conversations. The publication is available in the museum shop of the Städel Museum, as well as in bookshops.
The project was made possible by the long-term support of the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne.
In a project concluded in late 2018 after running for several years, the drawings of the Städel Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings were digitalized, piece by piece, and published online. The Städel Museum presides over a collection of over 25,000 hand drawings spanning the period from around 1400 to the present day. The digitalization project was carried out in cooperation with Bildarchiv Foto Marburg and was funded by the German Research Foundation. With its completion, the Städel Museum’s complete holdings of drawings are now accessible online to scholars conducting research and any member of the public with a keen interest in art.
The project consisted of two distinct phases. The first was a photographic campaign lasting four months, during which time all drawings were digitalized. Parallel to this, staff began the long task of compiling the metadata on each work within the parameters of a core catalogue. The completed datasets can now be browsed and viewed online, in the Städel Digital Collection.
The joint heads of the Department of Prints and Drawings, Dr. Regina Freyberger and Dr. Martin Sonnabend, oversaw the project, which was coordinated by Dr. Ralf Bormann.
Albrecht Dürer, A Lady from Nuremberg and a Lady from Venice, ca. 1495, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Jackson Pollock, Figure, 1948, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Property of Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V., © Pollock-Krasner Foundation / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022
In December 2015, the Städel Department of Prints and Drawings started a research project focusing on the museum’s holdings of Dutch drawings of the eighteenth century. With around 600 sheets, the Städel Museum houses one of the largest and—in terms of quality—one of the most distinguished collections outside of the Netherlands and the most unique holding of its kind in Germany. It can be traced back to the founding collection of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut and hence to Johann Friedrich Städel and, especially, his friend Johann Georg Grambs, who was one of the foundation’s first administrators. While the Dutch art of the seventeenth century has become familiar to a wide audience as the “Dutch Golden Age” (Gouden Eeouw) thanks to the works of artists such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, outside its country of origin relatively little is known about the Dutch art production of the eighteenth century, which so far has only very rarely been the object of scientific research. The Städel Museum owns exceptional works of artists like Jacob de Wit, Isaac de Moucheron, Aert Schouman, Cornelis Troost, Jan van Huysum and many more. Their art reflects the bourgeois taste as it fits into the context of eighteenth-century Enlightenment and which becomes apparent in a greater appreciation and an emancipation of hand drawings, a preference for pictorial, coloured drawings and the creative exploration of the art of the “Dutch Golden Age”.
The research project under the supervision of Annett Sandfort concluded with the publication of a scholarly catalogue presenting around 90 selected drawings and the exhibition “Passion for Pictures. Netherlandish Drawings of the Eighteenth Century” (10/1/2020–1/10/2021), in which the results were made available to the general public. The research project was made possible by the Frankfurt-based Stiftung Gabriele Busch-Hauck.
Caption: Herman Henstenburgh, Bouquet of Flowers, 1700, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
In support of research at the Städel Museum and the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, the Passavant Prize for outstanding scholarly studies in the areas of art history and archaeology has been awarded every three years since 1996. Specialist conferences on various topics moreover take place at irregular intervals. The colloquia and the prize programmatically commemorate Johann David Passavant, who not only made a major contribution to the development of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in the capacity of director from 1840 to 1861, but was also one of the founders of modern art theory. The Passavant Colloquium and the Passavant Prize are made possible by generous private support.
The last Passavant Colloquium took place in November 2015. Under the title “The View from Up Close. The Images of Altarpieces and Their Function in Medieval Times“, northern Alpine altarpieces from the Middle Ages were at the heart of the colloquium. The Passavant Prize 2016 for research in the history of art was awarded to Dr. Corina Meyer, honouring the comprehensive research activity conducted by the Stuttgart-based art historian on the person of Johann Friedrich Städel and the foundation of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut.
Caption: Johann David Passavant, Self-Portrait with Beret in front of a Roman Landscape, 1818, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
One of the most celebrated artworks by the Italian Baroque painter Guido Reni (1575–1642) was in conservation at the Städel Museum. “Christ at the Column” (c. 1604) is a masterpiece by the star painter of the 17th century. The conservation was made possible through the support of funding through Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project. The conservation work saw the removal of old varnish from the painting along with retouching and overpainting that has taken place over the years. The masterpiece was presented to the public in the major exhibition “GUIDO RENI. The Divine” (23 November 2022 to 5 March 2023) dedicated to the rediscovery of the artist.
The painting had already been on permanent display in the Gallery of Old Masters at the Städel Museum for several years. However, the aesthetic condition was poor: a yellowed layer of varnish, discoloured retouches, and old overpainting, inter alia, obscured the painting. As a result, the characteristic colouring and the spatiality of the original work had been lost.
The conservation work focused mainly on the removal of these later interventions. It corrected previous treatments and enhanced the painting’s aesthetic as a whole. Apart from the mere conservation, further research and an in-depth scientific examination of “Christ at the Column” were carried out, leading to new art technological insights and a detailed re-evaluation of this masterpiece.
Caption: Guido Reni, Christ at the Column, c. 1604, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Details in the Digital Collection
In a recorded online event broadcast live from the museum’s conservation department on 12 July 2022, curator Bastian Eclercy and conservators Lilly Becker and Stephan Knobloch provided insight into the history of the artwork and the conservation process.
The painting layer of the work “Endymion” by Bernard Schultze was in an extremely fragile condition, which gave rise to conservation and restoration measures. Research into Schultze’s painting technique revealed that, until 1957, he mixed his own paints from pigments and linseed oil, occasionally adding sand to the so-called “paint slurry”. After he had applied the paint to the canvas, he doused some areas with turpentine. With regard to “Endymion”, it can be observed that, in addition to applying the paint with a brush, he also poured and dripped the paint onto the lying canvas. The colours blurred into each other or formed drip-like running traces. In the course of time, some of these drops detached themselves from the ground and protruded in a roof-like manner. In addition, imperfections formed in the painting layer.
The measures carried out in the restoration studio of the Städel Museum aimed to prevent further loss of substance and to restore the original effect of the work. Endangered parts of the painting layer were therefore strengthened with an adhesive, missing areas were filled with a binder and finally integrated into the surrounding areas by retouching.
Caption: Bernard Schultze, Endymion, 1955, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, property of Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V., © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022, Foto: U. Edelmann
This early, small-format landscape painting by Wassily Kandinsky comes from the bequest of Ulrike Crespo and is painted in oil with a strongly impasto application of paint. The support is a painting board with a pre-primed canvas laminated on one side, which serves as the substrate for the pictorial composition.
In the course of an earlier restoration, a natural resin varnish was applied, which has since become very yellowed and darkened. The varnish affected the original colouring of the picture and was therefore carefully removed from the painting surface. After completion of the restoration, a copy of a frame profile common in the early 20th century was made, in which the painting is now presented in its original colour.
Caption: Wassily Kandinsky, Kallmünz – Light-Green Mountains, 1903, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Working on originals is fundamentally a privilege. It allows one to get very close to the artist. In this case Kirchner, who carved his admiration for Erna Schilling into the wood. The sensitive portrait is characterised by clearly outlined zones and short parallel hatchings, as well as a now delicate colouring, which the artist applied with a brush and opaque paints. The woodcut was printed by hand. However, works on paper age and often also show traces of earlier mounting and older restorations.
If the works were framed and hung in the rooms of former owners, then sunlight often had a damaging effect. At first glance, the framed work under a passe-partout showed only general browning. When unframed, however, a strip-like browning caused by the incidence of light along the passe-partout window became apparent, as well as traces of previous water damage. Especially along the upper edge, dark water marks and stains became visible, while the paper tone in this area was several levels lighter. On the back of the work, there were old mounts and glue residues along the top edge.
The challenge was to reduce the browning, the passe-partout shadow, and above all the traces of water damage, without endangering the printing ink, the colouring, or the inscriptions and stamps. The strong wavy warping in the upper part of the sheet was also to be reduced by removing the glue. After removing the old mounts and reducing the adhesive residue, the sheet was partially treated on a low-pressure table. Here, moisture – water or a solvent – applied with a brush is drawn through a perforated plate into an intermediate layer of blotting cardboard by negative pressure. Browning and stains are released from the paper and migrate into the blotting board. This enables a time-consuming but highly controlled local treatment. The treatment has now stabilised the woodcut and improved its condition. The restoration of the “Head of Erna” made it possible for this unique work to be given a befitting place in the exhibition “Tokens of Friendship”.
Caption: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Head of Erna, 1912, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
In 2021, work continued on the collection catalogue of paintings from the Baroque period in Germany. Here, the conservation department is conducting technological examinations of paintings by means of microscopy, ultraviolet rays, infrared rays, and X-rays and presenting the findings in the form of text contributions.
Since November 2019, the department has been carrying out analyses on works of art using macro X-ray fluorescence. For this purpose, a postgraduate position has been established for a period of four years with funds from the Dr. Rolf M. Schwiete Foundation. A principal task of museum conservation is the development of concepts for preventive conservation. This involves optimising the conditions under which artworks are presented and kept in gallery spaces and storage rooms. This concerns, for example, questions of room climate and light protection. Added to this is the migration of pests, favoured internationally by globalisation and climate change, which are increasingly becoming a problem in many museums. At the Städel Museum, strategies had to be developed to combat so-called paper silverfish; the restoration workshops at the Städel were involved in the development of the corresponding Integral Pest Management (IPM).
In addition, conservators are in demand when paintings and sculptures are loaned to partner museums all over the world. They examine and document the state of preservation of the artworks, prepare them, and often supervise the transport “from nail to nail” when they are lent out. The state of preservation of loans received by the Städel Museum for its exhibitions in 2021 was documented just as precisely. When collection departments of the museum propose works for purchase for the Städel collection, they are examined, where possible, in the conservation studio for state of preservation and authenticity. If the work in question cannot be delivered to the museum for viewing, the conservators often carry out an initial analysis on site.
The year began with the exhibition “New Ways of Seeing”, which presented photographs from the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to seventy-nine photographs from the museum’s own holdings and a large number of loans, brochures and books were also exhibited. The conservators made an individual presentation for each object possible by using specially made presentation aids, as well as by trying out innovative mounting methods.
Works on paper are always stored or exhibited in mounts for conservation reasons: Before each planned exhibition, the works must therefore be prepared after their state of preservation has been checked and documented. This often involves detaching the selected prints, drawings, or photographs from their old mounts and previous backing sheets, removing mountings, and then placing the works in new custom-made mounts and framing them. For the exhibition “Rembrandt in Amsterdam”, which had already made a first stop in Canada, a total of thirty-seven exhibits were processed in this way by conservators. Due to the light sensitivity of many materials, the exhibition duration of the works is limited, and the level of illumination is reduced to 40-50 lux. This results in a high fluctuation of exhibits for all exhibitions with works on paper, which have to be changed every three months and thus require equally frequent conservation care.
In the case of the very fragile works on paper, it also happens time and again that the examination of the state of preservation reveals the need for conservation intervention. The new acquisitions and numerous generous donations of the past year were also treated in this way with regard to conservation and restoration. This included the donation of over ninety works by Ulrike Crespo, among others by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Oskar Schlemmer, Cy Twombly, and Fritz Winter. The complex preparation of the exhibition can be exemplified by the world’s only surviving print of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s woodcut “Head of Erna” from 1912.
The small portrait of a gentleman painted on an oak panel was transformed from a tondo into a rectangular painting sometime between 1535 and 1870. In the process, it was cropped left and right as well as top and bottom. In April 1870, the portrait was acquired for the Städel Museum and subsequently reconstructed as a tondo. Due to ageing, the paints and varnish layers used in the reconstruction have darkened, and the latter have also yellowed considerably. As a result, the background painted bright blue by the artist has become dark green, which does not contrast with the figure as strongly as the original blue. During the most recent restoration, all layers of varnish were removed, as were older retouchings and the darkened paint of the reconstructed background. The luminous blue of the original background of the painting thus reappeared, and the reconstructed parts of the wooden panel were adapted to this colouring.
Caption: Before (above) and after the restoration: Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Simon George of Cornwall, ca. 1535–1540, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
In preparation for the exhibition on the artist Ottilie W. Roederstein “SELF. DETERMINED.”, her oil-on-canvas “Portrait of Dr. Elisabeth Winterhalter” underwent conservation and restoration. The painting’s appearance was strongly impaired by a layer of varnish that, applied during a past restoration measure, had meanwhile yellowed severely. What is more, improper treatment with overly aggressive solvents led to the removal of original glazes, causing irreparable damage to the painted surface. Once extensive research had been carried out, the process of removing the varnish began. Cautious retouching measures subsequently served to fill losses in the paint layer and integrate them optically into the overall surface structure. Over the course of 2020, the conservators applied reversible glazes to mitigate the damage caused by the solvent in the areas affected.
More about Roedersteins exhibition “SELF. DETERMINED.”
Caption: Ottilie W. Roederstein, Portrait of Dr. Elisabeth Winterhalter, 1887, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
In addition to the 25,000 drawings and 90,000 prints dating from the Middle Ages to the present, the Städel Department of Prints and Drawings oversees a unique holding of some 120 sketch books, most of them of German artists of the nineteenth century, such as Asmus Jacob Carstens, Carl Morgenstern, Karl Wilhelm Wach, Emil Lugo, Hans Thoma and many more. Due to the fragile state of the binding and paper, these rather special works of art may currently only be viewed in the Study Room in exceptional circumstances. To make them fully accessible to the general public again, they were subjected to extensive restoration efforts until the end of 2019, after which they were digitalised and published online as part of the Städel Städel Digital Collection.
The project is supported by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung and the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung within the framework of the initiative „Kunst auf Lager“.
The year 2019 saw the completion of extensive restoration work on Arnold Böcklin’s “Portrait of the Actress Fanny Janauschek”. During an earlier measure to line the painting with a thermoplastic adhesive, the application of excessive heat and pressure led to the irreversible deformation of the pastosity throughout the surface. The subsequent use of an excessively aggressive solvent to remove old varnish moreover caused damage to many of the extremely sensitive dark glazes. The natural resin varnish then applied in several layers later darkened and yellowed severely. To the extent possible, all earlier conservation and restoration materials have meanwhile been removed from the original painted surface and losses in the paint retouched by a reversible method. The elaborate restoration was carried out with funds from the Ladies’ Society of the Städelscher Museums-Verein.
Caption: Arnold Böcklin, Portrait of the Actress Fanny Janauschek, 1861, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, property of Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.