Seeing Through Paintings

Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies

Andrea Kirsh and Rustin S. Levenson


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This clear and accessible handbook introduces the nonspecialist to the physical examination of easel paintings and the historical and critical implications of such study. It takes the reader through the various layers of paintings, from support to varnish, and looks at information that might be attached to a painting’s reverse, as well as the physical circumstances of its display. The authors demonstrate how this knowledge contributes to a wide range of historical and critical approaches, including iconography, regional and colonial studies, examination of artistic intent, interactions among artistic schools, and the history of collecting and exhibition.

The book offers the only comprehensive discussion available on materials, techniques, and condition issues in Western easel paintings from medieval times to the present. It includes detailed case studies of 25 paintings by artists from Giotto and Leonardo to Vermeer, Degas, and Pollock. The extensive illustrations are drawn from more than forty-five international museums; the artists represented range from a Byzantine master and a Mexican colonial painter to living artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Jacob Lawrence, and Robert Ryman. The book will fascinate and benefit beginning or advanced students of art history and their teachers, as well as painters, collectors, museum docents, and conservators. Those who have known paintings primarily from books, slides, and photographic reproductions will be exposed to a new dimension of their study.

Andrea Kirsh is an independent scholar and a curator. Rustin S. Levenson is conservation director of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates, New York City, and Florida Conservation Associates, Miami.

“An essential handbook for the pro, and also a beautifully illustrated primer for the layperson. Kirsh and Levenson teach the most valuable lessons about painting of all: how meanings, material, and techniques are bound up together.”—John Walsh, Director, J. Paul Getty Museum

“This book is the embodiment of fruitful collaboration between a conservator and an art historian. An extremely important work.”—Joyce Hill Stoner, University of Delaware/Winterthur Museum

Seeing Through Paintings is in every respect the work of skilled and meticulous researchers. An examination of materials, techniques, and condition in western painting from the medieval through the contemporary, this study is a fascinating and informed behind-the-scenes look at paintings as physical objects. . . . Highly recommended as an addition to any academic, art and design, or museum library.”—Louise Greene, Art Documentation

“Who would have thought the back of a great painting could be almost as interesting as the front? But so it can become when you read this book. Seeing through Paintings is a pleasure to look at and read. It is also extraordinarily informative.”—Artists and Illustrators

“This book offers a sleuth’s approach to paintings. . . . It is clearly written, accessible, attention grabbing even, broad in scope . . . all in all, a long overdue book with direct relevance for modern students of the history of art.”—Libby Sheldon, Burlington Magazine

“Kirsh and Levenson’s beautifully produced book on paintings as objects delivers much more than just a catchy title. . . . This marvelous book is a much-needed introductory handbook for nonspecialists, such as art history teachers and students, collectors, and just plain art lover.”—Choice

“If you are a collector, curator, art historian, student, or artist interested in Western paintings from the last five centuries, this book will enhance your life. . . . The book is highly readable and copiously illustrated. . . . A remarkable, comprehensive, and fascinating book worth reading and rereading. . . . It can be used fruitfully as a museum studies text book for the training of future curators and is also an excellent reference book for conservators and conservation students.”—Joyce Hill Stoner, International Foundation for Art Research

“A collaboration between an independent scholar and conservator in private practice, it explains the physical stuff of paintings better, and in fewer words, than any other book on the subject. . . . With very brief, well-illustrated case studies, Kirsh and Levenson show how an informed eye—even unaided, except by proper light—can develop a sort of X-ray vision for technical, historical and critical issues in painting. They explain well the research uses of radiography and other high-tech conservation tools, but their emphasis is on visually available evidence. . . . Every element of Kirsh and Levenson’s book is smart, concise and informative. . . . A detailed index and glossary, an annotated bibliography and a wealth of illustrations make Seeing Through Painting the essential book on its subject.”—Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle

Seeing Through Paintings succeeds in making the physicality of painting an unflaggingly gripping subject. . . . [It] is a rich lode of information.”—Chase Madar, The Art Book

Seeing Through Paintings is a rich lode of information . . . . This book is also a top-notch reference source, with a valuable glossary, an appendix on historical pigment identification . . . and a comprehensive annotated bibliography.”—Chase Madar, The Art Book

Seeing Through Paintings succeeds in making the physicality of painting an unflaggingly gripping subject. . . . Fascinating. This book is . . . a top-notch reference source.”—Chase Madar, The Art Book

“Kirsh and Levenson provide a wealth of information about how the experts look at paintings. . . . The authors take the average art lover far beyond mere superficial examination and analysis of subject matter. . . . Lavishly illustrated and lucidly-written, Seeing Through Painting will fascinate anyone with more than a passing interest in art.”—Virginia Quarterly Review

Selected  as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2000 by Choice Magazine

Winner of the Bookbuilders of Boston and the 44th Annual New England Bookshow book award in the Professional Illustrated Division

Winner of the joint award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation, given by the College Art Association and the Heritage Preservation
ISBN: 9780300080469
Publication Date: April 10, 2000
344 pages, 7 7/8 x 10 1/4
150 b/w + 110 color illus.