Restorer's brush versus master's hand: controversial issues of painting conservation and restoration
The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da VinciThe 18-month-long restoration of "The Virgin and Child with St. Anne" (above) by Leonardo da Vinci resulted in a controversial outcome. Dull, faded hues were transformed into vivid browns and lapis lazuli that had viewers awestruck.
Like the novel "The da Vinci Code," the restoration of Leonardo’s last work that the master laboured on for 20 years until his very death has been accompanied by a high-level intrigue worthy of a movie thriller.
The Louvre, where the painting is housed, has long being hesitant to clean the canvas because of the fears over how the solvents were affecting the sfumato, a painting technique that Leonardo mastered. After cleaning has eventually started in 2009, two of France’s top art experts — Jean-Pierre Cuzin and Segolene Bergeon Langle — resigned from the Louvre advisory committee responsible for the restoration. Some sources reported they were outraged that conservators were over-cleaning the work to a brightness Leonardo never intended.
However, when Bergeon Langle saw the final result, she was partly relieved and reassured on some aspects that bothered her. Yet, she notably criticized the decision to remove a white patch on the body of the infant Jesus, which she said was painted by Leonardo himself.
We see that the restored canvas came out much lighter. Instead of the cloudy dark shades that prevailed before, after restoration the painting is dominated by bright colors, as if a shift from evening to a sunny daytime has happened. And although some experts claim that it is contratry to da Vinci’s vision, we will never know the truth because no pristine work by Leonardo has been left to compare today.
Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da VinciNew heated debates over the transparency of conservators' interventions into old paintings were reigned with the release of a pre-conservation image of Leonardo’s "Salvator Mundi" sold in November 2017 for $450m. The painting’s terrible condition and the quantity of restoration work done produced much doubts over the pureness of the da Vinci’s brush. The authorship, already doubted by many scholars, has been questioned even more after Christie released a pre-conservation image of Salvator Mundi, revealing big vertical cracks to the walnut panel and significant losses on its surface.
Thomas Campbell, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, prompted a flood of comments by posting the Christie’s image on Instagram with the caption "450 million dollars?! Hope the buyer understands conservation issues…" The Art Newspaper contributor, Bendor Grosvenor, responded to it with the phrase on Twitter suggesting that if Campbell had followed the work of the Met’s conservation department, "he would know that many Old Master paintings look like this, when stripped down".
What we see in the first image above is the removal of the historical overpainting done during 500 years since its creation that reveals the original painting underneath it. White lines look like preparatory ground (gesso) marks crudely painted over the cracks of the original painting trying to fill them in. In the central black and white image we see the poorly repaired wooden panel with the oil overpainting applied over the gesso made by restorers dozen of times prior to the last comprehensive restoration in 2007. The third image is the final result of the 2007 restoration undertaken by Dianne Dwyer Modestini, Senior Research Fellow and Conservator of the Kress Program in Paintings Conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
Would you be satisfied with viewing this work on a wall at the Louvre Abu Dhabi gallery prior to its restoration or you’d rather prefer it after being restored? The question is indeed a rhetoric one.
Danae by Rembrandt van Rijn"Danae" by Rembrandt housed at the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg, is the brightest example of an emergency care and the longest treatment that has ever been given by conservators and restorers to heal the disfigured wounds of a canvas.
Regarded by common consent one of the most beautiful of all European paintings, Danae was irreversibly damaged by a vandal in the summer of 1985. A 48-year-old unemployed resident of Kaunas Bronius Maygis slashed the canvas with a knife twice. He cut Danae’s lower belly and a thigh but that wasn’t enough for him. He went on by pouring a sulphuric acid from a one-litre jar on the picture and shouted 'Freedom for Lithuania!' although Lithuanians themselves deny his political purposes. He has later been variously described as either ''a deviant,'' a madman or an embittered citizen of one of the Baltic republics.
Being first regarded as damaged beyond any hope of recovery, Danae, nonetheless, went back on view in the Hermitage in 1997 after 12 years of close and often perilous work on its restoration.
The trio of highly professional restorers — Evgeny Gerasimov, Alexander Rahman and Gennady Shirokov, together with Tatyana Aleshina who provided scientific and methodical support — has accomplished all needed conservation works in a half of a year: stabilized the paint layer and the preparatory ground, made re-varnishing, and prepared a new duplicating canvas. Then they fought against the damaging paint trickles formed by acid and water on the surface for at least two more years. Eventually, the fundamental question came up: ''How far should the picture be restored? When was it time to call a halt?''
Above: Gennady Shirokov, Alexander Rahman and Gennady Shirokov working on Danae’s restoration, 1990-s. Photo: credit to kulturologia.ru.
According to Evgeny Gerasimov, in the resulting painting, ''some parts are 100 percent Rembrandt, some are 50 percent Rembrandt, and some had to be redone. The left thigh is slightly restored. The right arm was 90 percent damaged but is now back to normal. The pearls were intact, but the jewels needed work. What the visitor sees is not 'the original,' and we would never put it forward as such. But the spirit of Rembrandt is intact.''
The restorers refused to repaint the transparent drapery that covered Danae’s legs. Their decision illustrates well the team’s approach to conservation and priorities in restoration. The cloth was literally washed away by the infernal solvent. Restorers were advised to recreate it. That wasn’t a problem for them as they were skilled painters. Nonetheless, they regarded the advice as nonsense: no one except for Rembrandt himself had the right to restore the lost cloth. They believed that they would better show the original depiction of the woman’s legs than overpaint it with their brush strokes.
Following the same principle, several small details were not repainted in Danae. For instance, a bundle of keys at an old woman’s right wrist behind Danae has completely dissolved in acid, but the detail was never restored again. The conservators decided not to make a replica over the original painting but preserve as much of a pristine Rembrandt as possible.
Portrait of Isabella de’ Cosimo I de Medici attributed to Allesandro AlloriIt is thanks only to restorers from the Carnegie Museum of Art that the portrait of Isabella de' Cosimo I de Medici (right) was discovered right beneath a portrait purported to be Eleanor of Toledo (left) and attributed to Bronzino. As it turned out, the depiction we have been viewing for 2 centuries or even more was actually a painted-over portrait of Eleonor’s scandalous daughter. Hidden and creatively repainted in the Victorian era, most likely to suit 19th-century tastes or to please some Victorian art-buyer, the revealed portrait is of much greater depth and shows much more interesting personality.
The work accomplished by the restorers of the CMOA under a chief conservator Ellen Baxte is one of the most spectacular jobs ever done in paintings restoration and conservation. It was Lulu Lippincott, the CMOA’s curator of fine arts, who first suspected that the piece was no Old Master. She passed it along to Ellen Baxter, asking the conservation studio to confirm that it was a fake. Through inspection of paint crack-lines, and later X-radiographs, conservators determined that the original portrait of Isabella de' Medici had been creatively overpainted.
- Portrait, mid-restoration at the CMOA. Photo: courtesy of the CMOA.
- Detail of the portrait, mid-restoration at the CMOA. Photo: courtesy of the CMOA.
Isabella did not move to Rome with her husband after the wedding as it was planned by her father. She rather preferred to establish herself in Florence, holding intellectual salons and being a patron of the arts. She spoke several languages and was known to be a lively and witty conversationalist. Some say she threw extravagant parties and allegedly had extramarital love affairs.
Lulu Lippincott and Ellen Baxter believe that, posing for the portrait, Isabella de’Medici was holding an urn similar to the one Mary Magdalane used to wash Jesus’s feet. She posed with it in an attempt to restore her reputation. "This is literally the bad girl seeing the light," Lippincott told Carnegie Magazine.
"Now that we have the picture as close to its original appearance as we can, scholars will be able to make an accurate assessment of its quality and authenticity," Lippincott said in 2014. She considered the painter was someone in Allori’s circle, or he himself, as the artist was the leading Medici court painter during the 1560s and 70s.