Artwatch UK

An ominous silence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

19 February 2011

On February 6th, ArtWatch and our French colleagues in ARIPA sought an assurance from Keith Christiansen, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chairman of European Paintings, that the museum will resist any temptation to clean its newly acquired and miraculously well-preserved early mannerist painting by Perino del Vaga. Dr Christiansen has yet to reply.

The Met had made a wonderful double acquisition at Sotheby’s, New York annual Old Masters Sale. On January 26th it bought (for $782,500) Perino del Vaga’s stunning drawing The Marriage Bed of Jupiter and Juno, a design for one of a series of tapestries commissioned by Andrea Doria for his palace at Genoa (see right). On January 27th it also bought Perino del Vaga’s very fine The Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist for $2.098m – a sum that greatly exceeded auction estimates; that was a record price for the artist; and that surely testified to the painting’s superb, restoration-free condition (see right).

This rare and precious condition was celebrated by Christopher Apostle, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the firm’s Old Master Painting Department in a video promotion:

This Holy Family with Madonna and Child is by Perino del Vaga, one of the most important and elegant painters of the late Italian Renaissance. Despite the way it looks now, it is actually in extremely beautiful condition. It’s under a varnish, which is aged and discoloured over many, many centuries. “It probably has not been restored in the last two or three hundred years, if ever. “Underneath you see wonderful details, wonderful retention of paint and even small flakes of gold. Here, in the hair of the Madonna, in the hair of the Infant Christ, as well as along her collar and along the border of her cloak. It’s an exceptionally elegant picture and one has not seen one like it on the market for many, many years.

Sotheby’s respect for the condition – and forgoing of any temptation to spruce it up for the market – had paid off handsomely. Not only was the price a record, at $2m it had reached something like five or six times its estimate of $300,000–400,000. By contrast when, in the same sale, Sotheby’s put up Titian’s A Sacra Conversazione: The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria – another painting said to be in fine, rarely touched condition, but which had been restored for the occasion (see right) – it failed to reach its upper estimate ($20m) selling for only $16.9m (or £10.6m). Although even this low price broke a 20 years old auction house record for the artist, it did so when the going “museum rate” for privately sold large multi-figure Titians is about £50m (as with the Diana and Actaeon when recently bought jointly by the National Gallery, London, and the National Galleries of Scotland).

It is possible that certain non-condition factors adversely affected the Titian’s price. A number of newspaper writers noted the distinctly downbeat and opaque circumstances of the sale. The Daily Telegraph’s art sales correspondent, Colin Gleadell observed that:

Although unquestionably by Titian, some felt there was evidence of the hands of his assistants at work, and there was only one bidder, an anonymous European collector, for it.

In the New York Times, Carol Vogel also flagged up the curious solitary and anonymous bidder who had got himself up to the new record price by bidding to the bottom estimate:

The painting, which dates from around 1560, sold to a lone telephone bidder for its low estimate, $15 million, or $16.8 million, including Sotheby’s fees. The auction house would identify the buyer only as ‘a European collector.’ The price was a record for the artist at auction, surpassing the $13.5 million paid at Christie’s in London in 1991.

The high premium that auctioneers now place on little or un-restored works is, to critics of restoration practices, one of the most heartening developments of our times. Another is the fact that some restorers, even, acknowledge that less has proved more in the preservation of old masters. The New York dealer/restorer, Marco Grassi, has disclosed that of the paintings coming into his hands, the ones enjoying the best condition are those of relatively minor and unfashionable artists. As he concludes, because such lesser works are so often “impeccably preserved, so we have to think something terrible started in the nineteenth century when the painter/restorer trade began.

We in ArtWatch and ARIPA were hoping that in this new climate and with the widespread delight of art lovers over a particular miraculous survival, the Metropolitan Museum, despite recent signs of hyperactivity in its own picture restoration and up-grades department, might now allow its exciting newly acquired benchmark painting to be enjoyed for what it is by the public and to be properly studied as such by experts. Our hopes are dashed: we see in Carol Vogel’s report of January 27 that she had already ascertained Dr Christiansen’s pro-active intent:

Though the work sold for more than its estimate, Mr. Christiansen said the museum actually benefited from what he called ‘negative chatter’ about it from dealers. Although the painting is in good condition, he said, it is filthy and will go on view only after it is cleaned. Paintings by this Renaissance master are rare.

His “reading” of the sale seems eccentric: negative chatter about filth drives prices down, to the benefit of the Met, while driving them up to record highs in the wider world? Does Dr Christiansen not know that “filthy” is the traditional hungry restorer’s term of denigration for any work with an old varnish the removal of which might earn a shilling? Does Dr Christiansen not appreciate that any replacement varnish will also discolour in short order and need also, on his logic, to be removed? Will he not concede that every removal of a varnish layer that is inevitably amalgamated with the underlying paint carries inherent risks?

Of course, if a painting really were “filthy”, then any dirt should be removed from its varnished surface, with mild and safe means. At which point, in this particular painting, the optimal moment would occur for studying what may well be a rare and original final coating that speaks of either the artist’s own finishing procedures or of those that were general to his times. If when so cleaned, an old varnish is found to be an impossibly obscuring accumulation of varnished layers, then, certainly, it might gently, gradually be thinned until a non-injurious transparency is attained. But we can, pace Dr Christiansen, be confident that this particular painting cannot have been in such a dire or filthy condition – for how else might so many people have marvelled at its beautifully nuanced, gradated and harmonised chromatic and plastic relationships, along with its wonderful and clear details?

So far as we know, there has been no public indication or discussion of what Dr Christiansen and the Met’s restorers might or might not be intending to study and report – or intending to remove or suppress – during their cleaning of the picture. While we would have hoped that it is now a universally recognised duty of museums to cherish and study disinterestedly any historically-preserved and artistically intact work without haste or the imposition of personal tastes, we are in this respect disquieted to recall Dr Christiansen’s own somewhat hubristic declaration that “Restoration is interpretation”, and, “in the end, it’s a matter of taste. And I guess I have confidence in my taste.

Given Dr Christiansen’s continuing silence and declared intention, we can only fear that despite all recent confessions of past errors – Rembrandts wrecked at the Metropolitan Museum; Picassos likewise at MOMA – once again, as an exceptionally fine and intact painting has entered the Met’s Restoration Maw, it will already, just as did Velazquez’s great Juan de Pareja before it, have disappeared into the cleaning tank before the public might have stolen the briefest glance; before artists (see right) and other experts might have examined, reflected, reported and discussed; before any profitable illuminating non-invasive, long-term explorations might have got under way; and before any of the Met’s too-bright, too-flat, too-modernist, overly “conserved” pictures might have been put to shame by the aged but intact condition of the new arrival.

Michael Daley

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Above: Perino del Vaga The Marriage Bed of Jupiter and Juno, drawing, The Metropolitan museum of Art.
Above: Perino del Vaga The Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist, painting, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Titian’s A Sacra Conversazione: The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria, painting, an anonymous European buyer. Above: before restoration. Below: after restoration
Above and bottom: Perino del Vaga, The Holy Family, details.
Below: Three painters respond to the Metropolitan Museum’s acquisition of Perino del Vaga’s The Holy Family:
What makes this painting special is its delicacy and softness. The embroidery on the collar and headdress of the Virgin Mary is so carefully rendered with flecks of gold that it appears as if it was executed with a single bristle, and the red fabric over her chest looks like a thin veil of crimson over a superbly rendered design of folds painted underneath. Perhaps the most exciting feature, and the one from which artists can learn a great deal, is the hierarchy of light on the forms that is so balanced that it allows the eye to float freely around the picture without getting caught up in one place or another. One of the hazards of removing varnishes on old paintings such as this is that this hierarchy is disrupted and by trying to brighten the values, conflicting light effects, or “hot spots” ensue. The infant Jesus, sitting contentedly in his mother’s tender embrace as she hands him a cherry, is a perfect example of this sensitivity. His chest is a mass of illumination that spills into His face and recedes as the form turns away from the light source. This mass, however, sits carefully behind both His mother’s right hand and his own left leg, which has brighter highlights than anywhere else on His body, yet still remains subservient to the larger light mass above; it does not draw the eye away from the rest of His body. This is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a painting and is often one of the first things to be disrupted by restorers who work inch by inch across then canvas without regarding it as a whole, and when too much emphasis is placed on brightening a painting during restoration.
Here is what I predict will happen when the painting is cleaned. St. Joseph, who now rests behind the Madonna, will be thrust forward making it look like the Madonna has a head on her shoulder. His hand will come out from behind the Madonna and look as if he is about to strangle her. John the Baptist, who now is a secondary figure in the painting, will be cut out so that he will become more apparent to the viewer thus ruining the composition. The harmony of color throughout the painting will be lost as the costume becomes brighter, the flesh tones paler and subtleties eliminated. The folds in the Madonna’s drapery will become more pronounced, drawing the viewer’s eye away from her face. The Christ child, now so beautifully painted, will become a mass of rounded lumps on the first cleaning and then flattened like a pancake on a subsequent cleaning. All the atmosphere and mystery will be lost; the painting will then look like a page from a religious coloring book. The representative from Sotheby’s on the video speculates that the painting has “probably not been restored in the last two or three hundred years, if ever.” The varnish is old and discolored and should be removed, but there is no need to scrub the painting to get to the original paint as is so often done. Since the work has not been recently restored, whatever damage is done can not be blamed on over-painting by previous restorers. The Met is receiving this painting in excellent condition and will be responsible if it does not remain in that condition. I only hope they do not “discover something new” about the way Perino del Vaga worked. Their new discoveries are always the results of terrible blunders. The breadth and beauty of this work may never be seen again if it does not go on display before being cleaned. I trust ArtWatch will archive as much documentation as can be gathered online before this work is destroyed. Perhaps I have too gloomy a view of the prospects for this painting but I’ve seen it all before. In any case this is a painting that needs to be watched.
Perino del Vaga’s “Holy Family with Madonna and Child” is a terrific addition to the Metropolitan Museum. I have made 18 oil painting copies at the Met in front of the originals and have learned nearly all I know about art in the process. These images have formed something of a lexicon of ideas for me. What I like most about the Perino del Vaga picture is the subtle modelling of the Virgin’s head- the way the light spills gracefully across the head and reddens on the cheek and mandible before slowly shifting into the shadow … Gorgeous! I suspect the Museum will clean this picture in order to remove the perceived yellowed varnish and to make the Virgin’s blue cloak more blue! I suspect the cloak was more blue when it was painted some 500 years ago but I was not there to see it. Much of the sculptural form and subtly of this gem is sure to be lost if and when the Met decides to restore the painting. Did the Museum pay over 2 million dollars for a diamond in the rough?
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