Beer Byproducts Are Hiding In Some Famous Danish Artworks

A study of two artists’ work discovered that beer byproducts may have been used to prime their canvases.

<p>Vania Tonova / Getty Images</p>

Vania Tonova / Getty Images

During a season eight episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer Simpson famously raises a mug of beer and toasts “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” Humans have clearly been making (and eventually fixing) booze-fueled decisions for centuries before that eternally quotable line — and some researchers have suggested that’s true even for 19th-century Danish artists.

According to a study that was recently published in Science Advances, Danish Golden Age painters Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg and his student Christen Schiellerup Købke may have used some of the byproducts of beer-making to prime their canvases before they started work on them. (As Science notes — and as anyone who’s watched Bob Ross knows — modern artists prep their canvases using a mixture called gesso.)

To conduct this study, a team of researchers from the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Academy, and the National Gallery of Denmark, among others, analyzed the protein residues in 10 paintings by Eckersberg and Købke that were produced during the first half of the 19th century. They discovered that eight of the 10 artworks  had “various collagen sequences” that were most likely because the artists used animal glue on their canvases.

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That wasn’t exactly an unexpected discovery — but the presence of proteins from baker’s yeast and “several species of cereals” that they found on seven of the paintings were. “To the best of the authors’ knowledge, these proteins have never been identified in an artwork before, and the identification of the source material is not straightforward,” the researchers wrote.

“Although the exact identification of this material cannot be indisputably defined exclusively on the basis of the proteomic analysis, the most likely source of cereal grains and baker’s yeast proteins is a (by-)product of beer brewing,” they wrote.

“Local literature sources reporting the common use of beer as artistic material and the evaluation of the mechanical properties, the availability, and the cultural and social importance of beer brewing products and by-products in Denmark further support this interpretation.”  (They also noted that beer-making was very common in Denmark in the 19th century, both because people like beer, and also because water wasn’t safe to drink unless it had been treated first.)

The researchers hope this information can be used to develop strategies for conserving Danish Golden Age paintings, and could also be used as a jumping off point for additional study into their history.

What it shouldn’t do is convince any Copenhagen museum-goers to do a taste test of Eckersberg’s paintings. Not even Homer.

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