Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Phantom of the Charter Oak

The Charter Oak was one very big tree (by some accounts it was 22 feet in circumference!), immortalized by one very big artist (Frederic Church). I promised to tell some of the secrets of our paintings in this series and Church's The Charter Oak is literally a painting about a secret.

I’ll tell you the legend of the Charter Oak in a few days, but right now I want to look closely at one small detail of the painting. Certainly Church intends for us to pay attention to the historic tree, but he learned from his teacher, Thomas Cole (who made a very famous painting of the Connecticut River), that including fine details can make his landscapes all the more grand. Look carefully to find a dog resting in the foreground, a cupola silhouetted in the distance, and bird perched on a branch of the tree on the right.

But it’s the woman under the tree you might find intriguing when stop to notice her. She’s not quite all there, is she? You can see the whitewashed fence in front of her right through her body. As fun as it would be to turn the tale of the Charter Oak into a ghost story, there’s actually a scientific explanation for what you see.

Oil paint is made up of pigment mixed with linseed oil. As the paint ages, the properties of the linseed oil change due to oxygen exposure. Light actually travels through the paint more easily now than it did 150 years ago. The result is that you and I can see “through” the woman standing under the tree. She would have looked completely solid to Church as he was painting it.

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