Sunday, August 21, 2016

Restored at the Louvre

Madonna of Loreto
oil on panel
Musée Condé, Chantilly

In 1990 Ségolène Bergeon wrote a book for the Louvre in Paris describing restoration procedures carried out in the 1970s and 1980s on dozens of masterpieces in French national collections. Science et patience, ou, La restauration des peintures is unusually well-illustrated, with photographs taken before, during and after the interventions. These are described in elaborate detail and with painstaking honesty from both technical and aesthetic viewpoints.

The Raphael above was believed to be one of many mediocre copies of a lost original until 1978, when an art historian proved it to be that original, last recorded accurately in an inventory of the Borghese collection from 1693. The red robe of the Madonna after cleaning and removal of old repaints resembled "red lace" more than solid red fabric, because Raphael's red layers of pigment had not adhered as well as the other paints. Ségolène Bergeon describes the difficulty of filling in thousands of minute specks of paint loss with multiple layers of a sufficiently luminous and intense mixture of stable, removable substitute-color.

Vittore Carpaccio
Sermon of St Stephen in Jerusalem
tempera on canvas

In Carpaccio's painting, made in 16th-century Venice, St Stephen preaches to a crowd in "Eastern" costumes deemed appropriate for a setting in the Holy Land. The only Carpaccio at the Louvre, this painting was cleaned and revarnished between 1985 and 1988. Removal of old, gravy-colored varnish restored a wide range of visible colors. Nevertheless, certain pigments  especially copper-based greens  had irreversibly degraded and darkened (or 'sunk') due to internal chemical changes. Hence, the darkening of the varnish was corrected, but the darkening of certain pigments was accepted as historically inevitable. In past ages restorers often covered discolored pigment with new pigment intended to approach closer to original colors, but mainstream professional standards now tend to oppose this practice.
Agnolo Bronzino
Holy Family with St Anne and St John the Baptist
oil on panel

The Bronzino above was acquired by the Louvre in 1902. It was cleaned between 1978 and 1981. During this work a 19th-century repaint was discovered  an additional piece of blue fabric inserted between the legs of the Christ Child as an improvised modesty-cloth. This addition was removed in 1981 using chemicals and scalpels. Ségolène Bergeon offers several rationales  ethical and practical  to justify this step. Yet in an earlier section of her text specifically devoted to "repaints" she presented strong arguments that tended in the opposite direction, using the example of the modesty-cloths applied to Michelangelo's Last Judgment and retained in place since 1564. When restoration of the Last Judgment was completed in 1994 (several years after Bergeon's book was published) about half the modesty-cloths had in fact been removed from the Michelangelo, as the modesty-cloth on the Bronzino was removed. Looking back, after another generation of practice and policy-making, it seems clear that the same steps would probably not be taken in either case today. There is now an increasing fashion for respecting the "material history" of an object and an increasing reluctance to make value-judgments about suppressing selected portions of that history.

Biagio d'Antonio
Christ Carrying the Cross
tempera and oil on panel

Napoleon and his willing minions proudly confiscated thousands of art works in Italy during the French power-spree that ended in 1815. It was only two years before the end – in 1813  that Vivant Denon, Napoleon's director of the Louvre, encountered the panel-painting of Christ Carrying the Cross (above) by Biagio d'Antonio in the church of Santo Spirito in Florence. He ordered it removed from the church and sent to Paris. In theory, all of Napoleon's cultural spoliations were returned to the countries of origin after 1815, but in practice a high percentage of the plunder, including this panel, remained in France permanently. During 1986 restorers at the Louvre documented the difficult job of cleaning the painting while maintaining its delicate glazes.  

Raising of Lazarus
ca. 1619
oil on canvas

Guercino's youthful painting, The Raising of Lazarus, followed the high-contrast fashion set at the beginning of the century by Caravaggio. Vivant Denon also played a leading role in bringing this painting to France from Italy, though the circumstances were quite different than seizing a panel from a church. Much earlier, in 1785, Vivant Denon discovered the Lazarus in Naples, bought it for his then-master, Louis XVI, and shipped it legally to Paris. The painting was relined at the Louvre during the early 19th century. By the middle of the 20th century it had become a "chronic invalid" in and out of the restoration lab regularly for reattachment of scaling and flaking paint. Diagnosed with a general loss of cohesion between the back of the painting and the supporting fabrics, this large painting was submitted to the radical treatment of a re-relining in 1988-89. Ironically, the Nineties turned out to be the decade when these complete relinings  formerly standard practice in museums  went severely out of favor. The required adhesives, applied either with heat or suction, came to seem unjustifiably drastic. As Paul Taylor writes in Condition : the ageing of art (London : Paul Holberton, 2015), "The doctrine today is one of minimal intervention, and the lining factories of the past have been shut down. This new attitude is welcome, but so far as sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings are concerned, it has come too late. A recent survey of unlined paintings from the period before 1800 in museums around the world managed to find just 43."  

Peter Paul Rubens
Hercules and Omphale
ca. 1602-06
oil on canvas

The Rubens above has been lined twice, like the Guercino, but it has also received more elaborate reconstruction of other sorts. Like the Raphael at top, Hercules and Omphale, in already-poor condition when encountered by museum staff early in the 19th century, was mistaken for an inferior copy, far from the hand of the master. As such it remained in storage (the famous and mysterious "Louvre Reserve") until 1972. During the Seventies rehabilitation work began, and continued into the Eighties. The picture's provenance and ownership history had been reconstructed, its status acknowledged at last, and consequently it jumped to the head of the queue for treatment. After the surface had been stabilized, there remained large areas of complete paint loss, including much of Omphale's head. Gaps of bare canvas were then filled with multiple layers of replacement material, finished with a pointillist technique of tiny multi-colored dots. The dots reconstructed missing picture elements without disguising themselves as the original artist's work. Newly-painted sections could be distinguished from original paint at close range, but not from a distance (and not in most photographs). As a young man, Rubens originally painted this large scene  along with a companion piece depicting the Death of Adonis  for a Genoese patron during the earliest years of the 17th century. Both paintings were bought by Queen Christina of Sweden  resident in Rome  in 1667. In the 18th century they passed  still as a pair  from her heirs to the famous Orléans collection in Paris. When this collection was dispersed, the Rubens canvases became separated. The Adonis entered a private collection, where it was respected and well-preserved, while by unknown mischance the Hercules and Omphale entered the Louvre collection "in anonymity and indifference."

Giovanni Serodine
Christ among the Doctors
oil on canvas

Serodine's Christ Among the Doctors of 1625 only came to the Louvre in 1982. In condition at that time, it resembled the Rubens above, with serious losses of original paint, though damage to the Serodine was better disguised by old heavy repaints.  The museum first removed these repaints, then relined the canvas. New repaints were then applied with a great deal more caution and care than the old repaints. Yet the stated goal for the Serodine was to make the retouch (completed in 1985) look "illusionistic" and "undetectable." Minute crackle patterns found in areas of original paint were mimicked in areas of new paint. Such deceptions represented an ideal to the old school of restorers, but the next generation would tend to perceive this same concealment as too near a neighbor to forgery.  

Antonio Tempesta
Pearl Fishers 
ca. 1610
oil on lapis lazuli

Antonio Tempesta's Pearl Fishers (also sometimes called Pearl Divers in India) was painted on a surface of raw lapis lazuli. The stone emerges in its natural color for sections of water, land, and sky. The artist incorporated and adapted paler grain-lines for clouds and foam. An inventory of 1635 shows this object received as a gift by the Medici in Florence. Other documents establish that it was displayed at the Uffizi inside the splendid red-walled Tribuna for most of the 17th and 18th centuries. After 1796 the object disappeared from Florentine inventories. Not until 1832 did it reappear in any documentary record  and the new document was an inventory at the Louvre. Curators assume that the work must have been seized by Napoleon's representatives and deposited in Paris, even though this appropriation was not recorded in any form that has survived. Tempesta's Pearl Fishers inhabits a small section of Ségolène Bergeon's restoration manual that deals with treatment of paintings on supports made of stone or metal. She explains that this lapis panel was in fact assembled from several smaller pieces of the scarce and expensive stone. A large rectangle chunk of stone at bottom right corner actually fell out and had to be reattached in the mid-1980s. Restorers at the Louvre along with outside specialists in precious stones worked together during several years to stabilize this lapis support, creating new external restraining structures and a new bed of adhesives.

Jean-Antoine Watteau
Le Pèlerinage à l'île de Cythère
oil on canvas

Watteau's Embarkation for Cythera has never lived anywhere else than the Louvre. As his reception piece accepted by the Académie royale in 1717, it automatically became state property. Since then, it has never at any period been denied masterpiece status or ceased to be popular both with the public and with scholars. It was successfully relined in 1798, we are told, but at that time a darker varnish coat was also applied. This remained in place until 1982, when its condition was submitted to a commission for consideration. Because of the special importance bestowed by tradition on this painting, even the decision to clean and reduce the varnish moderately was a controversial one. Ségolène Bergeon points out that four receding planes of activity are visible in the cleaned canvas  the figures in the foreground (at rest), the figures in the middle ground (in motion), a broad remote landscape of water and foliage, and the opening expanse of skies beyond. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries the work was exhibited under a varnish-veil of uniform brown that deprived it of both air and depth.

A similar situation prevails for the Louvre's best-known painting (never mentioned by Bergeon in Science et patience). This is of course the Mona Lisa, reportedly never restored or cleaned. The painting-layers are said to be in unusually good condition under the more visible layers of darkened varnish and common dirt. Those layers are, in this one special case, extremely unlikely to be disturbed, even though the reasons for the prohibition are not so much rational as superstitious.  

Leonardo da Vinci
Mona Lisa (detail)
oil on panel