I had been working at the Rijksmuseum for two weeks, but the reality of it all was still sinking in. The Rijksmuseum, the state museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam, is home to masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer, as well as other seventeenth century Dutch masters like Frans Hals, Gerard Ter Borch, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, and more. I have admired paintings by these artists ever since I was an undergraduate art history major, and I fine-tuned my understanding of them in UD professor Perry Chapman's seminar last spring. Not long ago, the possibility of working in paintings conservation at the Rijksmuseum seemed unattainable, and after two weeks, it still felt a bit unreal. That is until one evening.
As I was finishing work, I went to return a painting to its drawer for the night. When I opened the drawer, I noticed someone had placed another painting inside while I was working. As I began to close the drawer, I realized that I recognized the painting lying quietly inside. I had seen it many times before, in fact. It was Jan Vermeer's The Little Street. At that moment, it became clear – and suddenly very real – that I would be spending the next year surrounded by some of the greatest masterworks of the Dutch Golden Age.
My major project this year focuses on a painting by Haarlem painter Jan de Bray (1627–1697) that depicts the Biblical story of Judith slaying Holofernes. I have spent many hours examining and documenting this small, oil on oak panel painting from 1659, interpreting x-radiographs, infrared reflectographs, and elemental distribution maps from the macro-X-Ray Fluorescence spectroscopy (MA-XRF) scanner – all in order to understand how this particular painting was made and how it has aged. I have made comparative studies with other works by De Bray, and in the coming months I will visit the York Art Gallery in England and a private collection in Pennsylvania to see two paintings that many art historians believe were part of a series of Biblical heroines by De Bray.