NEW YORK — Danish painters in the 19th century may have turned to an unusual source for some of their supplies: breweries.
Researchers examined paintings from the Danish Golden Age and found traces of yeast and grains. That suggests painters were turning to byproducts from local breweries to prepare canvases, they reported Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.
The study author Cecil Krarup Andersen explained that they started the project in search of glues made from animal products.
“We were surprised to find something entirely different,” explained Andersen. He is a painting conservator at the Royal Danish Academy.
The brewing leftovers would have been spread over the canvases as a paste, creating a smooth surface and preventing the paint from seeping through, Andersen explained. This priming is done today with gesso, a mixture of white pigments.
The authors said that knowing what’s on the canvases will help in conserving them.
In this study, scientists examined works by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg – considered to be the father of Danish art – and Christen Schiellerup Kobke, one of Denmark’s first master painters.
To get a peek underneath their scenes of bobbing ships and family portraits, researchers used pieces of canvas that had been trimmed off the paintings in an earlier conservation project.
The team analyzed the little strips to pick out what kinds of proteins were in them, explained lead author Fabiana Di Gianvincenzo, a heritage scientist now at Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana.
Their results showed that seven of the 10 paintings contained mixes of yeast, wheat, rye and barley proteins — some of the key ingredients for a good Danish ale.
Beer itself was a precious commodity at the time — it was even used to pay salaries — so artists probably weren’t pouring actual drinks onto their work, Di Gianvincenzo said. Instead, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, which prepared canvases for its artists, likely bought leftover mash from local breweries.
This kind of recycling was not uncommon. Andersen said that artists also recycled sails and leather scraps to make their glue. Records from the time also suggested that beer products may have been used in the arts.
Andersen says that the research links Danish culture in two different ways.
“What is Denmark like? Andersen explained that beer was one of the things people thought about when they heard Denmark. “But then also, this particular time and these particular paintings are deeply rooted in our story as a nation.”