By John Bannon
The long lost formulas for the oil painting mediums of the great masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were reconstructed and published by Jacques Maroger in 1948 after a lifetime of research. Maroger, who was Technical Director of the Louvre Laboratories, and President of the Society of Restorers of France, was made Knight of the Legion of Honor. Many artists all over the world have been painting with Maroger’s mediums with great success and permanence for more than fifty years. Unfortunately, some artists have deprived themselves of these marvelous mediums because of spurious products called “Maroger” and because of Ralph Mayer¹s negative words in his book on painting materials. On this subject, Mayer did not do his homework. He did a disservice to artists. His unsubstantiated equation of Maroger’s mediums to megilp was simply wrong. Of the several Maroger Mediums, a few contain linseed oil and mastic, as do megilps. There the similarity ends.
In his book The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Old Masters, (page 100) Maroger also condemns megilps. These 19th century “painters’ butters” differ very essentially from Maroger’s mediums because the oil and lead are not boiled. The formulas derived by Maroger from ancient manuscripts and lab trials, call for cooking the oil with litharge (lead monoxide) until the oil becomes polymerized and pre-darkened This “black oil” is the essential ingredient in Maroger’s Flemish and Dutch mediums, but missing from megilps.
Charles H. Olin, a distinguished conservator with many years experience with the Smithsonian Institution and Museum of American Art, has examined sixteen recipes for megilp and found that Mayer’s comparison of megilp to Maroger¹s mediums to be “inaccurate”. Megilps, he says, “are made cold without being boiled with litharge”, and furthermore they “incorporate metallic oxidizers or Japan dryers notorious for their deleterious effects.” The latter are also not used in Maroger’s medium formulas.
There are available products, commercial and otherwise, that, unfortunately, claim to be “Maroger” mediums, but are really megilps, or worse. Artists are frequently not good technicians and can concoct all kinds of goop and call it “Maroger medium”. E.g. certain ones contain no black oil because some painters demand a colorless medium. However, it is easy to adjust to the transparent amber color of the Maroger mediums, and they have many important benefits, including permanence.. Again, Olin states, “by polymerizing and cross linking linseed oil during boiling without the advent of oxygen, the black oil forestalls future darkening of paintings.” Olin explains further, as linseed oil is boiled with litharge, as in the case of Maroger Mediums, the subsequent oxidation process may be minimized because the chemical bonds which would normally be available for oxygen, are not available. This prevents mediums from discoloring and other forms of degradation.” In addition to non-darkening permanence, correctly made Maroger Mediums impart ease of handling, quick drying, glazing ability, color brilliance, and other desirable qualities apparent in the great old masters.
While I was at the University of Pennsylvania graduate school, studio Professors James Domville and Wally Peters subjected Maroger Mediums to DuPont laboratory aging tests and found them virtually indestructible. When Maroger Mediums are made and used properly, any deterioration of the paint film is usually caused by the artist’s mistakes, e.g. painting “lean over fat”, diluting with too much additive (especially turpentine), varnishing to soon, etc., etc. Cracking, yellowing, and other ailments of paintings have many causes, but internal paint film decay with serious damages, is more evident in 19th & 20th century paintings than those painted in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Sargent and Picasso’s paintings were cracked while they were still alive. The damaging results of using a harmful medium or vehicle, experts agree, will usually be apparent in less than ten years.
For more than fifty years now the Maroger Mediums have had the pragmatic test of being used by thousands of students, amateurs, and professional artists. Included are many well known artist, such as:Reginald Marsh, Augustus John, Fairfield Porter, John Koch, and many others. Also, of course, there are the original Maroger associates, Ann Schuler, Joseph Sheppard, Tom Rowe, Frank Redelius, Earl Hofmann, Melvin Miller, myself, and others For more than fifty years I have made the Maroger mediums for my self and my students, and, from 1984 to 1997, I sold Maroger Mediums on the open market to many hundreds of artists. Of those artists I have known to use it, the vast majority have been thrilled with the results and have been hooked on the Maroger mediums for life. Some of my own paintings in these mediums are over fifty years old and show no signs of deteriorating. I have a work painted by Maroger himself in 1951. It is in NEW condition.
Reginald Marsh said that Maroger’s mediums enable painters to recapture the richness of color, the brilliance of tone, the delightful ease of manipulation, the quick drying power, and the permanence of the art of the Renaissance.” Fifty five years after Maroger’s publication of The Secret Formulas, the words of Roger Fry still ring true. The famous writer, painter, and art critic wrote of Maroger, “At least your name will remain by the side of Van Eyck as one of the great benefactors of all time.”
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