Tools & Technology

Quest for Permanence

Innovative industrialist, camouflage artist, and art detective, Maximilian Toch was a quintessential Renaissance man. He also symbolized the changing place of chemistry and chemists in turn-of-the-20th-century America.

Pure White Snow Zinc

Paint manufacturers of the 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized the purity of their ingredients. The new instruments and techniques of chemistry put manufacturers’ claims of purity to the test.

In the middle of New York’s Central Park towers a 70-foot obelisk popularly known as Cleopatra’s Needle, delivered as a gift from the Khedive of Egypt in 1881. The obelisk is flanked on either side of the park by citadels of art and science: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History.

To Maximilian Toch, a turn-of-the-20th-century industrial chemist who pursued a wide range of chemical avocations linking science and art, the obelisk was an object lesson. In his 1931 book, The Protection and Decoration of Concrete, Toch wrote: “This obelisk stood for 3,000 years in Egypt and hardly showed the ravages of time, but in less than 20 months it began to disintegrate in the climate of the City of New York.” For Toch this deterioration represented the challenge of modernity. Commerce and industry were transforming the urban landscape but were also putting that landscape in harm’s way: the air pollution and humid climate corroding the granite of the ancient obelisk also endangered the concrete, steel, and iron of modern skyscrapers.

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Maximilian Toch examining a painting through a microscope

Maximilian Toch examining a painting through a microscope. Toch, who studied and wrote about the chemistry of industrial paints, art restoration, and authentication, viewed himself as a protector of modern civilization.

Science History Institute

Toch took up this challenge and made the struggle for permanence his life’s work. He carried the battle from his family’s paint-manufacturing firm to the halls of Congress, from wartime shipyards to the contentious world of fine art. In doing so, he took on many roles: innovative industrialist, camouflage artist, and art detective. By following Toch’s life we also follow the broadening and deepening place of chemistry and the chemist in modern America.

Maximilian Toch was born in 1864 into the Jewish immigrant community of New York’s Lower East Side. His father, Moses, had emigrated from Bohemia (part of today’s Czech Republic) after the European uprisings of 1848 had given way to political stagnation and suppression. Moses, and the two brothers who followed him, quickly built a business importing and selling paints and varnishes. Over the following decades the firm of Toch Brothers ventured into manufacturing, and the brothers achieved a modest prosperity.

The young Maximilian had an aptitude and an appetite for science. As a teen he became one of the last students of New York University chemist John W. Draper, a pioneer of photographic technology. From Draper, Toch gained a firm grounding in experimental chemistry and a lifelong passion for photography. In addition to a degree in chemistry Toch took a degree in law, both useful for a career in the patent-heavy paint industry. He augmented his studies with an 1885 tour of Germany, where he attended lectures given by some of the world’s leading chemists. After the last of the original three Toch brothers died in 1886, Maximilian and his elder brother Henry took up the reins of the company. The young chemist set to work developing new paints and ended up helping undermine a centuries-long understanding of what made a paint good.

Toch took up this challenge and made the struggle for permanence his life’s work. He carried the battle from his family’s paint-manufacturing firm to the halls of Congress, from wartime shipyards to the contentious world of fine art.

Paint has long been more than an artist’s medium. European painters first used oil paints in the 14th century, and since then these paints have decorated and protected houses, carriages, ships, and other artifacts. Then as now, paint was a thin film of pigments dispersed within a liquid binder that dried when exposed to air. The most common pigment was white lead, a complex of lead carbonate and lead hydroxide, found in virtually every paint preparation as a white base. To get the desired tint, painters added small quantities of colorful pigments, such as Prussian blue, verdigris, or vermilion, to the white lead. The most common binder was linseed oil, extracted from seeds of the flax plant. Paint manufacturers and dealers sold these ingredients separately, and painters ground pigments with oil to prepare a paste of a particular consistency and color.

When Toch took his place in the family firm in the late 1880s, the paint industry was growing tremendously, fueled by a construction boom, advances in production technology, and more rapid extraction of such natural resources as lead. Increasing competition pushed manufacturers to devise less expensive formulas; some did so by covertly replacing a portion of the white lead with cheaper substances called inert fillers: clay, chalk, silica, barytes, and gypsum. Such a departure from established ingredients—linseed oil, white lead, and colors like verdigris—was considered adulteration. Angry consumers demanded pure paint; manufacturers in turn tended to present paints as “absolutely pure” no matter what they contained. But the new techniques and instruments of analytical chemists, unprecedented in their reliability and accuracy, put such assertions to the test. As American students studying in Germany brought these procedures back to the United States, paint manufacturers and painters began to hire chemists to tell them how close paint ingredients came to their ideal of purity.

Paint, Purity, and Permanence

The conflation of purity with quality led to misleading marketing practices. “Ready-mixed” paint was a case in point. It was sold in cans, ready to be stirred and applied, and could be stored for long periods without separating. Manufacturers achieved this stability by adding silica, silicates, or similar minerals. Ready-mixed paint, in other words, depended on adulterants. Because of the association of purity with quality some manufacturers based their marketing efforts on subtle lies. “The lead in this package is guaranteed absolutely pure,” claimed one producer, who neglected to mention the other similarly “pure” inert fillers that also went into the package.

Toch was prominent among a fringe group of paint chemists who argued that something important had been overlooked: paints including inert fillers were in some cases more durable than pure paint. If permanence—the ability to resist decay and to prevent the decay of the paint-covered structures—were taken as the yardstick for quality, the impure paints were not just as good as pure paints; they were better. Redefining quality was critically important. “Rust and rats are the two greatest enemies of modern civilization,” Toch warned an audience of paint chemists and technologists. Paint could do little about the latter, but Toch dedicated his career—and the fortunes of his family firm—to developing paints that could prevent the former.

His primary focus was the interaction between paint materials and the steel and concrete that had become mainstays of urban architecture. He sought paints specially adapted to the job of protecting and beautifying the materials of the modern city, a search that led him to explore new materials. Toch’s first success was a paint made of asphalt and gutta-percha (a natural plastic). This paint protected underwater pipes and machinery against corrosion and sealed the brick walls of basements against outside damp. Toch Brothers brought it to market in 1892 as “R.I.W.” (“Remember, it’s waterproof”). Toch turned next to protecting iron and steel against rust, a job then-current paints that contained red lead did only moderately well. His new formula, which included alumina silicate and other components of Portland cement, increased the protective power of red lead, and Toch Brothers first sold it in 1903 as “Tockolith.”

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A camouflage net over British troops in World War I. During the war military concealment became a technical craft to which Toch devoted his artistic and scientific skills.

National Archives, 111-SC-23098

Toch’s research program didn’t stop with industrial materials. He also took a keen interest in paintings, assembling the results of his research in his 1911 book, Materials for Permanent Painting. Toch agreed with many painters when it came to casting a skeptical eye on the exotic new colors then being offered, the brilliant but often impermanent coal tar–derived synthetic organic dyes. But he disagreed with painters who argued that only a return to the materials of the old masters could ensure the permanence of paintings. As his reputation grew, he mentored artists on their choice of paints, wrote more books, and advised painters and restorers on materials that could protect modern paintings and the work of old masters against such threats as urban air pollution.

By the late 1900s Toch could afford to indulge in this side interest because permanence had been good for business. Toch’s organic-acid formula that allowed paints to stick to concrete proved so popular that Toch Brothers couldn’t meet demand, and in 1906 the company elected to patent the product and license it to other manufacturers. By 1908 Tockolith, the ever-growing R.I.W. series, and other proprietary Toch Brothers products were in use in structures from the New York Public Library to the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint. As Toch delivered lectures and published articles in chemistry journals, the scientific reputation of Toch Brothers and its chief chemist grew in tandem.

Toch Brothers had answered the purity problem in its marketing; instead of promoting its paints’ purity, the firm promoted their laboratory origins. The change in message marked a turning point in the U.S. paint industry and in the status of industrial chemists, who gained a voice in the setting of standards and in designing products.

Yet Toch’s reconception of paint quality clashed with the beliefs of reformers dedicated to their own vision of modernization. “Adulteration” and “purity” were watchwords of the Progressive Era. Progressive reformers opposed late 19th-century “Gilded Age” corporations grown wealthy and powerful enough to ignore the interests of their workers and the safety of the public. Reformers wanted broader oversight over private industry and more action against such social ills as child labor, food poisoning, and environmental degradation. Toch shared these concerns and as president of the Sanitarium for Hebrew Children at Rockaway Park helped bring poor Jewish mothers and children from New York’s Lower East Side to the beach for fresh air, exercise, and healthful food.

Progressives found success with the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Until then food inspection had largely been left to consumers. Unscrupulous manufacturers could boost profits by adding water to milk or chalk and plaster of Paris to wheat with little risk of punishment or even detection. The 1906 act instituted federal inspections of food and drugs, mandated labeling of contents, and prescribed criminal penalties for adulteration or mislabeling. Toch approved of such regulations; his own sanitarium had an on-site bacteriologist who guarded the milk supply against the depredations of careless manufacturers.

Toch was less pleased about attempts to translate the demand for purity from food to paints. Edwin F. Ladd, a chemist who lobbied for the act, also called public attention to the “adulteration” of paints, drawing a parallel to food adulteration. Ladd’s efforts hinged on the question of labeling: should manufacturers be forced to disclose the composition of mixed paints? Hewing to the principle of purity, Ladd supported legislation that would require all “adulterants”—anything other than white lead, linseed oil, and “pure” colors—to be disclosed. Manufacturers vigorously opposed this initiative, fearing both the disclosure of trade secrets and the sales consequences of listing “adulterants” on their products’ labels.

Toch, a friend of Ladd and a leader of the paint industry, was caught in the middle. From 1906 through 1908 he testified against state and federal versions of the law, both before Congress and in appeals hearings that made their way to the Supreme Court. On the one hand, his professional experience made him wary of a law that would label necessary and beneficial ingredients as adulterants. On the other hand, Toch wished to eliminate the clandestine use of cheap, inert pigments and linseed-oil substitutes simply to cut costs, a widespread practice uncovered by Ladd.

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The New York Public Library was one of the buildings protected by Toch Brothers’ paints.

New York Public Library

In his testimony Toch criticized a proposed federal law that defined a paint as adulterated “if any of the materials contained in the article be of inferior quality.” For Toch this definition was meaningless; he noted that it would brand the paint on the White House and every car on the Pennsylvania Railroad as adulterated. The result, Toch feared, would be confusion and endless lawsuits. In the end Congress rejected the federal labeling law, but the Supreme Court accepted a North Dakota version of the law as constitutional, and several other states made the labeling of paint ingredients compulsory. Fortunately the chaos predicted by Toch failed to materialize.

Paint Chemistry Goes to War

During the decade following the 1898 Spanish-American War the U.S. Navy phased out the splendid but highly visible white paint on the hulls of its fleet in favor of the color known as “battleship gray” or “haze gray,” a neutral shade closer to that of the horizon. A change in color brought material consequences. The gray paint used by the navy included lampblack (soot produced by the combustion of oil), white lead, and zinc white, and was easily scraped off a ship’s hull by anchor chains. It also absorbed and reacted with seawater.

The navy approached Toch, by then well known as a paint chemist, for advice on a more effective formula for the gray paint. Toch found a solution both cheaper and more resistant to abrasion and seawater than the navy’s paint. He added graphite to the lampblack and replaced the white lead with blanc fixe (synthetic barytes).

Meanwhile French artists and scientists on World War I’s Western Front were transforming the ad-hoc practice of “military concealment” into the technical art of camouflage. As the United States prepared to declare war in 1917, Toch was among the chemists and artists called on to bring this new science to the American armed forces. In one project Toch worked on the dyes used on tarpaulins intended to hide weapon emplacements from enemy aircraft.

To the naked eye these coverings resembled natural greenery, but an opponent using optical filters and special photographic plates could distinguish the fake from the real. Toch helped find dyes that mimicked the optical properties of grass and foliage across the entire spectrum of visible light, fooling enemy equipment. At the same time, he helped recruit New York engineers, artists, and chemists to join the U.S. Army’s camouflage corps in France. More exciting to Toch was his work camouflaging shipyards and ships. At the naval bases in Pensacola and Key West, Florida, Toch first darkened the bright-white concrete walkways. Disguising the base’s telegraph poles, however, called for improvisation. Toch had pine branches nailed to the crosstrees and the poles wrapped in mottled burlap. He used a similar stratagem of shrubs, vines, and flowers to conceal mortars placed in the backyards of New Jersey and Long Island mansions to protect New York City’s waterways.

Toch also designed a camouflage system used on some vessels in the American merchant fleet. Naval camouflage required different strategies than its terrestrial cousin. Toch aimed both to lower the ship’s visibility and to distort its heading. He had wave shapes painted on the ship’s hull in four colors: grayish white, olive green, salmon pink, and yellow ochre (or sometimes blue gray). Toch wrote that, thus disguised, “a ship not only became foreshortened but its direction was so distorted that when I went out to sea in a submarine and fired some dummy shots at one of my own camouflaged ships, I missed the boat at as short a distance as 600 meters.”

Camouflage tests in early 1918 convinced Toch and other American naval camoufleurs—camouflage and disguise experts—that course distortion was far more effective than lowered visibility. As of March 1918 the U.S. Navy adopted the British “dazzle” scheme, a pattern of jagged areas of highly contrasting color that maximized foreshortening and so distorted direction. Toch’s wartime service was one of his proudest memories—“the Great Adventure,” he called it a decade later.

A “Chemist’s Notion” of Art Authentication

Just as Toch’s work on the permanence of naval paint was his entrée into the world of military camouflage, his investigations into the permanence of art paint led him to the science of authentication. And while Toch felt that he never received the public credit he deserved for his military work, his work in analyzing paintings put his name on the front page of the New York Times. His new interests also embroiled him in a feud no less heated than the regulatory hearings of two decades before.

Toch first spoke publicly about his work in authenticating art in 1914, at a lecture he gave at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. At the request of an apprehensive collector Toch had carefully examined a painting purported to be a 1650 work by the Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruysdael. Art critics suspected forgery but had no solid proof. Toch used photomicrograph techniques from his industrial paint research to uncover details of the painting’s brushwork. He also removed a minuscule portion of paint for microscale chemical analysis. The latter test revealed zinc oxide, a pigment not used until the 19th century. Faced with this evidence, the art dealer offering the painting confessed.

After the war Toch took up a new tool for authentication: X-rays. Scientists began to probe paintings with these new rays very soon after they were discovered in 1895, but patent protection and World War I halted the early investigations. After the war Toch took to making X-ray photographs, or “shadowgraphs,” of paint samples and paintings. Thicker coats of pigments and those made up of heavy elements (such as lead) absorbed a greater proportion of the X-rays and left the portions of film directly behind these areas less exposed. Just as medical X-rays displayed the structure of the body underneath the skin, Toch’s shadowgraphs revealed earlier “drafts” of a work hidden from the naked eye behind changes made by the original artist or by restorers. Toch put both photomicrographs and the X-ray to use in his best-known authentication effort. In 1923 Rutgers University art historian John van Dyke enlisted Toch in support of a sensational claim—that most of the paintings around the world attributed to Rembrandt (including the 15 or so in the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) were the work of his students or followers. Toch took photographs of the painting “Old Woman Cutting Her Nails” through different filters to highlight certain portions of the painting. Van Dyke used these images to argue that the painting’s design, shading, and brush strokes differentiated it from Rembrandt’s style and linked it to another painting positively attributed to Rembrandt’s pupil Nicolas Maes. But the majority of Rembrandt historians, including the Met’s curatorial staff, were not persuaded.

In 1931 Toch took this argument to the American Museum of Natural History. In a lecture there before the New York Microscopical Society, Toch revived Van Dyke’s claim. The chemist was slightly more generous than his art historian ally: of the Met’s 27 paintings attributed to Rembrandt (the collection had grown), Toch allowed one genuine Rembrandt. Chemical analysis revealed no anachronistic pigments in the paintings, but Toch claimed that his X-rays and photomicrographs revealed brush strokes entirely unlike Rembrandt’s.

In 1923 Rutgers University art historian John van Dyke enlisted Toch in support of a sensational claim—that most of the paintings around the world attributed to Rembrandt were the work of his students or followers.

The New York Times immediately picked up the story; other newspapers followed. William Valentiner, the foremost Rembrandt expert in the United States and the author of a new book certifying the Met’s paintings as the master’s genuine work, vehemently rejected Toch’s claim. The chemist “as little deserves being noticed as Herostratus, who set fire to the Temple of Ephesus in order to become famous,” Valentiner fumed.

Toch responded angrily, lambasting “old-fashioned” art experts for authentications based on subjective judgments. “The way of judging a painting by squinting at it with a half-closed eye and then writing a long dissertation, known as a certificate,” he wrote, could not long survive when pitted against modern, scientific methods. In newspaper interviews and articles spread over several years Toch continued to advocate for technological alternatives, such as ultraviolet and infrared photography. Lay observers, however, were more confused than galvanized. A Baltimore Sun editorialist dismissed Toch’s assumption of consistency in each artist’s brushwork, a crucial element of his authentication arguments, as “a chemist’s notion of how a painter works.”

By the mid-1930s Toch had lost the attention of journalists and with it his public forum. He died in 1946 knowing that his Rembrandt claims had been rejected. History, however, rendered a judgment of Solomon. Since Toch’s death about half of the paintings he challenged, including all three singled out in his 1931 lecture—“Old Woman Cutting Her Nails,” “Pilate Washing His Hands,” and “The Artist’s Son Titus”—have been reattributed to followers of Rembrandt.

Toch dedicated his life to ensuring the reliability of materials in a modern, urban world that both demanded permanence and threatened that permanence with pollution, war, and plain old wear and tear. Ironically, Toch’s own legacy has proven fleeting. He is remembered as a minor figure in American industrial chemistry and as the author of minor handbooks on artists’ paints. Yet Toch and his paints served as guarantors of the permanence of the modern world of steel and concrete, staving off decay and destruction and carefully preserving the integrity of a much older cultural legacy.