The way to more. An interview with Maryan W. Ainsworth

by Sytske Weidema

March, 2021

My interview with Maryan W. Ainsworth, former Álvaro Saieh Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, took place in March 2021, an extraordinary time. Not only were we still in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, but also, Ainsworth had recently retired from the Metropolitan Museum. It typifies her that she voluntarily stepped down to make way for the younger generation when the museum offered staff an early retirement plan due to a serious financial deficit. In addition to being regarded as a highly skilled leading figure in the field of art history, Ainsworth is a warm and generous person who has always been committed to the younger generation.

In March 2020, Ainsworth donated her important research archive to the RKD. This archive comprises the results of more than forty years of art historical and technical research, in particular infrared reflectography (IRR) [1].1 It provides a magnificent and fitting addition to the RKD’s IRR archives, which include the pivotal research documentation of IRR pioneers Prof. Van Asperen de Boer and Prof. Faries, and others such as that of RKD’s Margreet Wolters.

These two events, along with her inspirational career and personality, formed the impetus for this interview. It turned into a very nice conversation that we conducted through Teams, which covered important current issues that Ainsworth illustrated using examples from her background.


Maryan Ainsworth in her office at the Metropolitan Museum, February 2020
photograph RKD/Ramses van Bragt

Can you take us back to how initially Netherlandish painting inspired you?
I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio, which has always had a terrific art history teaching program and one of the best college museums in the country: the Allen Memorial Art Museum. At the time, the museum also included a conservation department, so I was studying art history through the actual objects and their care. When they were able, the professors always used the objects in the museum, and would take us to the conservation department when it was applicable. So as early as this, I became aware that at the basis of art history lay the first-hand study of the object, and seeing how much you are able to find out about it. That intrigued me, because I love detective work. In my leisure time, I enjoy reading detective novels or watching television stories about detectives as they solve mysteries.

During my studies, the museum acquired the small painting St. Catherine Disputing with the Scholars attributed to the Master of St. Gudule [2]. My professor asked me to find out everything about the painting that there was to discover. This was the beginning of a love affair with Netherlandish painting. I got so into it and its mysteries: the stories of the saint’s life, the condition of the painting, the painted oeuvre of the master. The Master of St. Gudule became the subject of my master’s thesis, for which I travelled abroad. It was then that I discovered the Centre d'étude des Primitifs flamands in Brussels and the RKD with its Friedländer archives.2 A whole new world opened up for me with what further research could lead to. And it all began with that little painting in Oberlin. It led to my very first art historical publication in the Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin [3].3

Would you have told a similarly passionate story if it had been about a non-Netherlandish painting?
It has so much to do with who your professors are. Those who engaged me most were the ones who were dealing with old master paintings. Prof. Richard Spear, who taught Northern and Southern Baroque, and Prof. Wolfgang Stechow, who had such a love for Netherlandish paintings, were important teachers for me. It has a lot to do with the inspiration that your professors give you, what they teach you and how engaging they are about the subject. The proximity of objects also influenced how intensively I became involved in the field. It made me recognize the importance of viewing the objects first-hand, and not just reading about them in books.

Are you concerned that the current lack of accessibility to objects due to the corona crisis is problematic for art history students?
Only in a certain sense. First of all, as opposed to when I first studied art history, today’s students have incredible online resources at their disposal. They are able to share, zoom in on images, check conservation reports, and so forth. Secondly, depending on where you are, some museums are open. I hope that viewing the object online will encourage students who do have access to museums to go see the actual object in the collection.

Should professors continue to experiment with new ways of presenting material as they have done over the past year?
Yes. It is terribly important not to simply fall back on the way it was done before, but to figure out new ways to enhance the visual experience. By sharing screens, professors can present to their students details and introduce them to the different issues of the works. It takes more work and time, but it is well worth it, because you lose the student’s interest if you do not make that material available in a very strong visual sense.

Master of St. Gudule
St. Catherine Disputing with the Scholars c. 1490
oil on panel 37.9 × 30.5 cm
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum
photograph museum


Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 32 (1974-1975)

However, it is absolutely essential to have the first-hand experience with the work of art to understand how it presents itself on the museum wall. Viewing an image online does not give you any sense of this. Many aspects have an effect on the viewing experience: what it is hanging next to, what is the lighting and its format as compared to other works on the wall? Viewing objects online is a temporary way of introducing the material, but it is never a substitute for seeing a work of art first-hand.

And what about presenting objects for visitors?
Say, you’re in the Netherlands, and you cannot get to New York, how can we at the Metropolitan Museum enhance your experience online? Our museum has tried very hard to create that visitor’s experience and to develop new tools to make the connection. One of the ideas that I have, for example, is to have someone like me videotaped in front of a painting, talking about the experience you get by looking at it on the wall, and then considering its original form and function in its own time. In the Metropolitan Museum, for example, is a Virgin and Child attributed to the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend [4]. The background is a gold ground tromp-l’oeil niche. It hangs on our museum wall in a such way that you cannot fully appreciate what the aura of that image must have been when it was hanging in a dark, candle-lit chapel in a church where that background gold would be shimmering. At that time, it would seem that the figures were projecting into your own space. We could show visitors through an online enhancement of visual experience how differently it originally was meant to be seen, and how it is presented on our museum walls today. It is terribly important to explain to people that these paintings that we enjoy so much are not just art works on a wall, but that they really had meaning and a function, which was at times completely different if understood in the context of their own time. I find it fascinating to do the detective work to find out what the function of a work of art originally was, and to offer that experience to contemporary students and viewers to understand why the artists painted the works the way they did.

Master of the Saint Ursula Legend
Virgin and Child 1475-1499
oil on panel 56.2 x 34.3 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
photograph museum

Why is that so important for a visitor to know?
Because a great deal of art offers universal themes and experiences that are very human at their core. Helping a visitor see how an object served its original function, makes it come to life. It makes the viewer wonder about the next work of art he or she will look at. How was it perceived in its own time, and how do I experience it now? It is a way of uniting the past and the present with universal themes.

Has connecting the past with the present for the viewer been one of your goals during your career at the Metropolitan Museum?
Because I initially spent a lot of time in the conservation department, I learned about the techniques, tools, and materials that artists used. Why did they use them? Why did they try to achieve certain effects? And what was their objective? Understanding this better led me to investigate further. What was the viewing experience in the artist's own time, and how different is that for us today? Does going back to the artist's own time help us to better understand the object? Does it unite us with these universal themes? Does it affect how we view it? There are all kinds of emotional human feelings that can surface by understanding the object better. That makes it a more enjoyable and creates a deeper, more fully rounded experience.

A lot of people who have seen an image of a painting in a book come to the museum and walk right by it. But if you can entice them to look at it, even when they think they already know all about it, you can intrigue visitors to engage more fully with the work of art rather than simply dismiss it as an image they have already seen online or in a book.

You take great pleasure in organizing focus exhibitions, such as the Cranach show in 2015 [5].4 Is intriguing visitors, in the way you just described, one of the reasons for that?
Yes, it is an extension of my love of detective work, of finding out as much as I possibly can about an individual work of art that I think the public likes learning about. In the last decades we have had many more exhibitions that highlight questions pertaining to the manufacture of art. But, to show the full contextual experience via every possible approach and to bring it all together in a focus show, is such an eye opening experience for visitors. This is not only to better understand the object in its own time, but also to grasp what a curator or a conservator does exactly. Those things can really contextualize an object in every possible way. Fortunately, at the Metropolitan Museum with its vast collections in other media, there are often ways to bring in prints and drawings, medieval decorative arts or early printed books. All of these various objects can enhance the story of the object you are dealing with. Focus shows offer an opportunity to delve into an object in great depth.

In the context of current discussions about blockbuster exhibitions, do focus shows offer a good counterbalance to the apparent necessity of blockbusters?5
This year of cancelled and postponed exhibitions and museums closing down due to COVID-19 has forced us to look at our own collections to see what we can do to keep going. We have asked ourselves the question how we can continue programs that do not require transport of artworks. Many museums are so financially strapped that they cannot maintain that kind of agenda. The Metropolitan Museum depends on its foreign visitors for the basis of its financial success, which is currently lacking. And, the local visitors can pay what they wish. So COVID-19 has triggered us to think differently. Blockbusters used to be the only way to attract many visitors. But, if you can come up with a really good theme or subject that can be supported by the various collections within your own museum, then you will attract visitors who will believe it to be a loan show.

Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop
Saint Maurice c. 1520-1525
oil on linden 137.2 x 39.4 cm
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
photograph museum

The 1998 Van Eyck to Bruegel exhibition consisted for the largest part of works from the collections of Netherlandish paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.6 Most people thought it was a big loan show. Bringing together all of the objects from various areas throughout the museum and displaying them in a manner in which they are normally not seen is just as enticing as a blockbuster exhibition.

Furthermore, these days, many museums are considering questions of diversity and inclusion with great sensitivity and care. We're looking for new kinds of themes or new usages of subjects that we have not considered in the past in order to address a different group of visitors than before. That can really promote these kinds of focus shows. For instance, you can install five of your seventeenth-century marine paintings and use it as an opportunity to talk about the slave trade. Or you can address the idea about the seventeenth century: was it really a golden age and what do we actually mean by 'Golden Age'? Pulling apart an idea that was considered to be the mainstream vision can be interesting for the public. In other words, you might not have to bring in objects from outside. Looking at the works you have in a new and different way can be just as valuable and vital for the health of the museum, even financially, as a blockbuster show. You just have to think outside the box.

Last year you very generously donated your important infrared reflectography documentation to the RKD.7 If you were to put a sticky note on your IRR archive, what would it say [6]?
First of all, I would want to convey what an important precedent Prof. Dolf van Asperen de Boer set by his incredible scholarship.8 He pioneered the field of technical art history by doing technical examination of paintings, and his inspirational teaching led a broader public of interested students and others to understand what technical examination is. Upon his retirement, he generously handed over his archive of technical examination material to the RKD. That wonderful example was followed by Prof. Molly Faries who did the same.9 I was so inspired by these gifts that I could not imagine my material going anywhere else but to the RKD. I knew that there it could be excellently cared for and stored and eventually digitized to be widely shared and compared with the fantastic archival material that is already inhouse. It is the best place anywhere in the world for it to land. Over the last decades, the RKD has expanded its activities by also collecting important archival material. This is going to enable researchers 'one stop shopping' by visiting the RKD and letting their fingers run through some of the greatest resources for technical research that exist today. The key is having the resources to get it digitized and online so that it is widely accessible.

When I first started out doing infrared reflectography work and traveling with the equipment to many museums in Europe and the States, where they often did not have any equipment, it was always a matter of deal making: they would let me come and I would provide them with the results. Eventually, more museums started to acquire their own research equipment, but sometimes staff members were very protective of their material. It was therefore difficult to create a comparative body of studies, which is essential for reaching conclusions. I found out that if I was willing to give my material to the museums, they were willing to share their information. That helped, but it was not always that way. I am very grateful that now, because of the reputation of the RKD in excelling in meticulous documentation and online publishing of material such as this, people trust it with confidence. The more you have, the more you will get and the more it will enable further research. It is a very good model. A broad community effort, interdisciplinary work and collaboration has to be the way to go. If you have a solid basis to start from, such as the excellent facilities at the RKD, then you’ll have a great head start.


A fragment of Maryan Ainsworth's IRR archive showing some of the IRR hand-mounted reflectograms during the acquisition by the RKD in February 2020
photograph RKD/Ramses van Bragt

As a researcher, what do you think is the very best way to present your IRR material?
Ideally, I would like to see it available online with cross references to other collections in the RKD archives. For example: if I access my work on Gerard David (1450/1460-1523), I would love to see any cross reference to find out if Van Asperen de Boer or Faries studied the work with infrared reflectography, if Peter Klein did any dendrochronology, and if there are links to archival references.10 Keeping my archive separate will allow researchers to only do a certain amount. With cross links, you can really see how the field has developed, how we have made new inroads and where we go from here. No archive forms the end of a story, it is only a stop on the way to more.

Cross referencing to other research is not only important for the study of a particular object, but also for the understanding of the history and development of research methods.
Yes. It would take someone at the RKD to really invest time to look at the material and do interviews with the researchers to compile a history of the development of that kind of research.

In that sense there is a parallel with the analog raw dendrochronology data in the Peter Klein archive at the RKD and the analog hand-mounted reflectograms in your IRR archive.11
Yes, I believe that these are important steps to be preserved somewhere for people to be able to see. What were the baby steps that we had to take in order to get to the bigger solutions? There may not be so many people who feel the need to access that material, but seeing it helps us understand how many small steps it takes in order to make significant progress.

Furthermore, what we now consider to be novel ideas were often already conjured up at one point in the past. Those ideas were discussed and either abandoned or attempts were made to pursue them. It is helpful to know how exactly that was done, so that, now that we have better equipment, we do not make the same false turns. It may be a mere footnote in the history of research but nonetheless an important one.

Can you elaborate on that with an example?
Slowly over time, we gained much more understanding of the use and discoloration of smalt and how vastly it changed the tonal quality of paintings.12 The explanation was that it is a cheap pigment, and therefore widely used as a substitute for an expensive pigment such as ultramarine. It was very interesting that when conservator David Bull was cleaning the portrait Edward VI as a Child by Hans Holbein (1497/1498-1543), he discovered that the background was grey/brown instead of a beautiful blue, due to the use of smalt [7].

He could not understand why the artist had used this cheap pigment, since this was a portrait of the prince that Holbein gave to the king as a gift. But it was then discovered that smalt was a very expensive and highly sought after pigment in England at that time. This explains why Holbein would have used it. These are the kinds of situations in which you are going along in the way you are used to and then something unexpected happens. It happened quite often with discovering underdrawings with IRR in paintings, when you think you know what to expect to find and only to discover something completely different. You cannot understand it until you broaden the data and collaborate with others to see what they found. Then you can turn back to the problem and explain it. And this forms the core of the whole purpose of sharing the material.

Unfortunately, all kinds of misinterpretations were made in the past when there was so little available comparative material in IRR. One of the classic examples is to study a painting that you believe to be by the master, for example Joos van Cleve (c. 1485-1540/1541), and then finding pouncing in the underdrawing.13 In the past, it was automatically assumed that this meant it was a workshop piece. Only later did we begin to understand that painters in their workshops made copies themselves and used patterns to make it easier to start the whole process. However, it was still made by the master and it did not always mean it was a workshop product. There are all kinds of similar examples that testify to the importance of a more expansive collaboration and a greater amount of comparative material.

Hans Holbein the Younger
Edward VI as a Child probably 1538
oil on panel 56.8 x 44 cm
Washington, National Gallery of Art
photograph museum

Do you think the RKD can play an even bigger role in this than it already does?
Yes, I do. I believe that just making the material available is not enough. Education must accompany the material. With the proper fund raising, a place like the RKD should provide workshops for art historians to learn how to use and interpret the material properly. Technical material has become mainstream in art historical studies and art historians feel that they need to use it in their research and publications. Unfortunately, there have been a number of times when that material is used without any understanding of what it is exactly. Students may not always have a professor who teaches them how to use it. I believe that the institutions that have the material, such as the RKD in particular, need to get into the business of teaching. They could team up with universities to teach about research so that students can really get a hands-on experience looking at archival material and learn to properly interpret to get sound results.

Is this also what you envision for your material?
Yes, that would be great! Teaching with the aid of the actual archives serves one’s purpose, because it broadens the understanding and influence of those archives.

About Maryan Ainsworth
Renowned today for her leading role as a technical art historian, Maryan Ainsworth received her Ph.D. at Yale University with her dissertation on the Flemish artist Bernard van Orley (before 1490-1542) in 1982.14 During her career of more than forty years at the Metropolitan Museum, she started out as a Research Fellow in the Paintings Conservation Department before becoming curator of Northern Renaissance paintings at the European Paintings Department. She specialized in Netherlandish and German painting as well as interdisciplinary research. Ainsworth is also Adjunct Professor of Art History at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, and she trained over twenty-five fellows in interdisciplinary research at the Metropolitan Museum through the Slifka Foundation Fellowship, including the author of this interview.15


Maryan Ainsworth
photograph Rebecca Clews, 2018


1 Infrared reflectography: a photographic or digital image analysis method which captures the absorption/emission characteristics of reflected infrared radiation. The absorption of infrared wavelengths varies for different pigments, so the resultant image can help distinguish the pigments that have been used in the painting or underdrawing.

2 A specialized research unit of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), Brussels.

3 M.W. Ainsworth, 'St. Catherine Disputing with the Philosophers: An Early Work by the Master of St. Gudule', Bulletin (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio) 32, no. 1 (1974-1975), pp. 22-33 (accessed 10 June 2021).

4 Focus exhibition: exhibition highlighting one or a few works of art; Maryan Ainsworth, Sandra Hindriks and Pierre Terjanian, 'Lucas Cranach's 'Saint Maurice' , The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 72 (2015) 4.

5 See for example the translated newspaper article by Meta Knol on Museumnext.com (accessed 10 June 2021; originally published in NRC on 22 February 2020 as 'Stop de blockbusterverslaving' [Stop the blockbuster addiction].

6 Exhibition: From Van Eyck to Bruegel. Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), 22 September 1998-3 January 1999.

7 The news item on the RKD website: Maryan Ainsworth's archive has come to the RKD (accessed 10 June 2021).

8 Trained as a physicist, Prof. J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer in the late 1960s developed infrared reflectography (IRR) as a technique of investigation specifically for the study of paintings. IRR can optically penetrate the painted surface to reveal the sketch beneath (the underdrawing). Prof. Van Asperen de Boer also was an inspiring professor at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen from the late 1970s onwards where he trained students in what is now called technical art history. His impressive and invaluable research archive, containing research reports, IRR mosaics and paint cross-sections from hundreds of artworks came to the RKD in the mid-1990s. There it formed the basis for the collection of technical documentation. Prof. Van Asperen de Boer sadly passed away last year in July.

9 Prof. emeritus Molly A. Faries was trained as an art historian and studied infrared research under Prof. Van Asperen de Boer. She received her Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr on Jan van Scorel in 1972 and then continued to specialize in technical art history and Netherlandish painting. In the 1980s she became professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and in 1998 at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. She was the first professor to acquire reflectography equipment in the United States and became a leader in infrared reflectography research. Her important IRR archive containing documents such as negatives, reports and mosaics on hundreds of paintings was transferred to the RKD in the early 2000s.

10 Dendrochronology: a method of dating wood (such as in panel paintings) by examining the annual growth rings.

11 Prof. emeritus Peter Klein’s vast archive is accessible via the RKD website Dendro4Art. It contains reports, raw data and measurement drawings resulting from years of dendrochronological examinations on hundreds of paintings.

12 Smalt: a coarsely ground blue potassium glass containing cobalt.

13 Pouncing is a method of transferring a preparatory drawing for (for example) a painting from paper to another surface, such as canvas or plaster. The artist would prick holes around the outlines of the drawing, place it over the second surface, and then dust powder such as chalk or charcoal through the holes.

14 Technical art history: branch of art history focusing on an artwork as a physical object. It studies the materials, techniques and production methods that went into its making, as well as artist's reflections on the process of creation; Maryan W. Ainsworth, Bernart van Orley as a Designer of Tapestry, Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1982.

15 For Ainsworth’s full curriculum vitae, see the Met's website (accessed 10 June 2021).

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