Quite a number of art historical studies have been written about Petkovšek’s painting output, but no overall natural science and conservation/restoration analyses of his works have yet been done. In the study volume Jožef Petkovšek: Podvojene slike (Jožef Petkovšek: Doubled images) colleagues from the Natural Science Department of the Restoration Centre of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia published the results of their examinations of several of the painter’s works with the methods of X-ray radiography (RTG), optical microscopy (OM), and scanning electron microscopy in connection with energy dispersive x-ray spectrometry (SEM-EDX).
The National Gallery of Slovenia possesses the optical system of multispectral analysis which renders possible a nondestructive insight into different layers on the painting surface. We employed the UVF, VIS and IR, and IRR methods. We examined the painted surfaces in the layers of retouches and overpaintings and the protective layer (UVF). We continued the examination on the colour surface (VIS and VISDET) and illuminated the paintings all to the priming (IR and IRR) where the painter’s technology allowed. Most of Petkovšek’s examined paintings have white priming followed by layers of oil paint. As a rule, protective varnish is also applied to the surface, but it could have been added later. All paintings have already undergone conservation/restoration interventions, some of them even several times. It is a well-known fact that the painter overpainted numerous of his works, or at least altered them. His Venetian Kitchen was reworked, or complemented, even four times (supposedly the most accomplished variant of this motif is lost). Similarly, also the Washerwomen by the Ljubljanica were executed both in gouache and oil.
Optical analysis has revealed the painter’s “restless” hand. Often, it is a matter of imperfection of the brushstroke, whereas on the other hand, Petkovšek’s analytical approach can be detected in the finalizing of the painted motif. Underdrawing as a preparatory aid in the construction of a composition is visible in most of his examined paintings, since they have a well traceable white priming. The system of squaring as a means of translating images from other sources and rich underdrawing are indicators of the artist’s intentions to develop a systematic approach which, as a rule, has a firm compositional structure under the surface.
The tragic life story of the painter and lack of understanding of his painting potentials are the reason why many of his paintings are lost forever. Therefore, at least his surviving works deserve an all-embracing analysis. The purpose of the present optical examinations was to support the theses concerning stylistic characteristics which art historians have already studied thoroughly.
The era of realism in Slovene painting falls into the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and its beginning was promising for the young generation of painters. However, their life stories took a dramatic turn, as if designed by contemporary realist novels. It is particularly true of Jožef Petkovšek (1861–1898), about whom a TV movie was made in 1978, suggestively entitled The Mad Painter. His works were first exhibited only posthumously in 1910, but from them onwards interest in his oeuvre, albeit meagre, grew rapidly. His output fell victim to the artist’s own fits of destructive temper and to misjudgement of his contemporaries who disdainfully discarded his works. Special interest was paid by art historians to the painting At Home (1889), so that it became the most frequently (re)interpreted work of art in our country. Also the painter’s contemporary piece Venetian Kitchen (1888) was given similar psychological interpretations. Petkovšek’s painting intentions are clearly revealed by his thorough preparatory works and then alterations during the process of the execution of a painting, whereas “aesthetic” interventions on his paintings after his death reflect the taste of the contemporaries. Such interventions are invisible to the naked eye, but have been revealed by means of new technical, i.e. non-destructive, methods reaching through the layers of paint all to the canvas.
A special place in Petkovšek’s oeuvre goes to his painting Washerwomen by the Ljubljanica, dating from 1886. It was commissioned as a gift to one of the daughters of the Kotnik family who had got married and left the large and rich estate for Kranj, where, in the new milieu, the painting was meant to be a memento of her native Verd near Vrhnika. The painter captured a view towards the river, a view which can still be identified today thanks to the fence on the right. He painted from life and employed no previous works as his models. However, the painting shows that he was familiar with original works of contemporary French painting, which is evident in the cooler palette and careful interpretation of relations between light and shade, and reflections of the sky and objects mirroring on the water surface. The painting is well balanced also in terms of composition. Instead of the horizontal format, usual in landscape painting, he chose a rarely used vertical view, which might have been the client’s wish. The painting Washerwomen by the Ljubljanica is certainly one of the outstanding works of Slovene realism, and it significantly adds to the knowledge of this art period. For this reason, the National Gallery of Slovenia tries hard to carry out a purchase of this artwork and thus essentially complete in its collections the chapter on realism in Slovenia.