Artwatch UK

BOOK REVIEW – A Restoration Palindrome

Noémie Étienne, The Restoration of Paintings in Paris, 1750-1815: Practice, Discourse, Materiality, Getty Publications, 2017, paperback, 302pp + xiv, 35 col./34 mono illus., £45/$69.95, ISBN 978 60606 516 7

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Alexander Adams writes: This title does not discuss the actual techniques used by restorers of the period but discusses the way restoration was seen and how business was conducted. The author examines the underlying assumptions of collectors, critics, administrators and restorers at time of great change in French (and European) history.

“A painting cleaned is a painting ruined; a thing to which the dealers never agree, but it is nonetheless true.” So Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) wrote posthumously in 1851-3. Restoring was a controversial practice even in its early days. “Individuals engaged in some kind of restoration in Paris between 1750 and 1815 were generally also dealers, experts, copyists, or painters. That versatility underscores the breadth and variability of the profiles involved. The activity itself was nurtured by numerous related occupations, such as painting and forgery.” In business directories of the time, the classification of restorers was unclear and changeable. Dealers – initially based near the Louvre but later more widely distributed in central Paris – commonly repainted, retouched, cropped and expanded paintings that passed through their hands and a small community of restorers grew up to support such activity.

Restorers worked for the Louvre, the court and for private collectors. Restorers long maintained secrecy to prevent competition and to avoid criticism, though they were often berated for their secrecy, which began to dissipate in 1802 when the first published description of technique used on a specific art work by the restorer in question. There was a clear conflict here. Museum administrators recognised the right (and necessity) of allowing private craftsmen to conceal their methods from competitors; at the same time the administrators needed to know the safety and permanency of operations being carried out upon museum property.

Renowned restorers such as Robert Picault could command huge sums for work on important pictures, such as Raphael’s St Michael. Despite these triumphs there are cases such as that of a 35,000-franc Rubens painting being reduced in value to 5,000 francs due to Picault’s aggressive overpainting. Restoration sometimes made paintings more saleable, sometimes worthless wrecks.

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Only after the Revolution (and then only gradually) did restoration become to be seen as a distinct discipline. The proposed professionalization of restoration practitioners in Paris was complicated by the unclear division between the menial craftsmen who made the panels and stretchers and were more likely to do the work of relining oil paintings and detaching frescoes and the skilled artisans who reserved the prerogative of cleaning, varnishing and retouching the painting surfaces.

Already at this time there was a division between those favouring methods which distinguished between original and restoration and those advocated extensive, invisible in-painting, including invention of absent passages. Bedotti recommended improving works where possible:

“For it sometimes happens to even the most skilful painters to make mistakes that are too gross and too visible. In that case, one must not fear to seek and to remedy, wherever possible, and to improve the painting by eliminating or concealing the most shocking mistakes.”

Others explicitly opposed such intervention, sometimes on the purely aesthetic grounds that retouchings discoloured at a different rate (and in a different way) to the original paint, thus leaving old restored paintings an ugly patchwork of tones.

The more famous the master, the more enthusiastically it was overpainted in order to freshen it. Work on the Raphael St Michael was considered especially egregious, with details repainted. Jacques-Louis David was also critical of restorations to Raphaels, which had subdued the master’s colours. By 1800 the relining process was heavily criticised for flattening impasto and removing the brushstroke, thereby altering the character of paintings.

Attitudes towards cleaning differed. Some said darkening through age, dirt and deteriorating varnish was a patina which imparted special qualities to the art work, mellowing and harmonising colours. Others suggested moderate cleaning, even leaving a light veil of dirt. One writer stated that cleaning was more injurious to a painting than the yellowing of varnish.

Étienne makes the point that the practice of transferring paintings from their original supports to new ones (usually canvas) altered not only the character of the art physically but also conceptually, turning altarpieces, furniture panels and murals into cabinet pictures, moveable chattel. German historian Johann Dominicus Fiorillo wrote “Nothing is independent in an art work; each singular part is bound up in a coherent whole, and that unity and singular internal constitution means that it forms a unit. If one part is destroyed, then only a fragment remains, and the work can never regain its unity.” For the French, a painting consisted of a painted surface and the support was – technical considerations aside – a matter of indifference. Conversely, the dismemberment of altarpieces (common practice in Italy and Belgium) was apparently rare in France.

Political considerations also encouraged the mobility of art in order to make it available in grandes projets of the period – the construction of new museum collections which would centralise newly mobile paintings. When Vivant Denon, director to the Louvre, required works to fill gaps in the museum’s collection, there was a drive to transfer Daniele da Volterra’s Descent from the Cross (c. 1545) from its wall in Rome to a canvas support so it could be taken to Paris. French officials suggested that transfer was the only way to save the work that would surely be damaged or destroyed otherwise – hardly more veiled than an outright threat issued to reluctant Roman authorities. It was indeed detached and damaged but later replaced in situ, the French effort stymied by Italian resistance. The wholesale detachment and transferring of the Sistine Chapel murals was seriously considered.

Paintings were considered decorative in function and so were often altered in shape to fit a new location or to make a group of works conform in size. The author suggests that the Revolution altered perceptions among authorities regarding the function of art. No longer in the new French Republic would art be titillating and comforting decoration but moral, uplifting and didactic. As part of a wholesale reappraisal of Louvre practice in the wake of the Revolution, a review concluded that art works no longer be altered in size. Denon had had a change of outlook and adopted a minimalist approach to restoration.

Étienne describes the hectic rush to clean, re-varnish and frame paintings which had been the spoils of military campaigns in the Low Countries and Italy, in order that they could be exhibited in Paris. These restorations were acts of appropriation, as the French asserted ownership of these trophies. “Restoration work performed on the paintings was part of the process of appropriation of newly arrived items. The reasoning worked as a palindrome: Whoever owns the painting restores it, and whoever restores it owns it.”

This title is not intended as a discussion of practice and illustration is minimal. The notes and bibliography are thorough and there is a full index. There is a general biographical directory of restorers of the period. For anyone studying the history and theory of restoration, Étienne’s book is a fascinating, considered and informative survey with implications for practitioners today.

Alexander Adams, 6 June 2017

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