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The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick

10 July 2014

Today, in a sale of old master drawings (and on an estimate of £1.5m -£2.5m), Christie’s is offering large claims for the artistic and historical significance of a small (roughly 16cms square and shown here at Fig. 1) pen and brown ink drawing:

“This is the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG 6461), and it was followed by a modello oil sketch now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (inv. 1972.459). Commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), who was Rubens’s most important early patron, this powerful composition dates from shortly after the artist’s return to Antwerp from Italy, where he had been from 1600 until 1608, and provides a valuable insight into his developing style and preparatory processes.”

This account is conventional but, nonetheless, contentious. No hint is given that the relationships between these three linked works are highly problematic or that all three have suffered cuts or thinning. The authorship of this group has been contested for over two decades. On February 19 2004 the Daily Telegraph published a letter from ArtWatch on the painting’s problems (“Is the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah another copy?) We have published two special issues of the Artwatch UK Journal mounting challenges (Figs. 2 and 3) and have written a number of articles on the subject for the Art Review. The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, initially, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, whose findings (made with fellow artist Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson) were compiled in a report (see this website) that was submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and later covered in the Times and the Independent. In 1997 researches by Kasia Pisarek, prompted two articles by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that the evidence “is respectable, and the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”. Those questions have never been answered. In October 1997 the National Gallery issued a press release in which it was said that:

“Debates of this sort require patient consideration of different sorts of evidence. The best format is for this evidence to be presented at some length for public discussion – and the National Gallery will be arranging such a lecture and debate over the next few months.”

A debate that has yet to take place

Within a few days the commitment was dropped when the press release was re-issued and the debate never took place. To this day there remains an enormous accumulation of problems with the National Gallery’s “Rubens” Samson and Delilah and, therefore, with its two closely associated works – the ink drawing and the oil sketch. All three works, which are dated to 1609-10, have unusual and anomalous features – and all appeared only in the 20th century. The modello arrived last without name or history in 1966 and was upgraded by Christie’s to Rubens even though it is painted on a soft wood and not the oak which Rubens invariably used.

Ludwig Burchard’s cunning plan?

Behind the successful 20th century elevation of this trio, is the fact that both the drawing and the large finished painting in the National Gallery were attributed to Rubens barely two years apart by the same man, Ludwig Burchard. Burchard was a great authority on Rubens who, notoriously, was unable to publish his life-long Great Work on the Artist for fear of having to de-attribute very many paintings for which he had supplied unwarranted certificates of authenticity. In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21(Spring 2006) Kasia Pisarek, whose PhD Dissertation was on Rubens and Connoisseurship, identified over sixty Burchard Rubens attributions that had subsequently been demoted in the Corpus Rubenianum itself.

Dr Pisarek felt that the year of launch for the picture now in the National Gallery might be signicant. As she put it:

“That year 1929 was not free of strange coincidences. By a bizarre stroke of luck, the painting re-emerged 48 years after its disposal by the Prince of Liechtenstein in Paris in 1881 (not 1880, as is commonly said), the exact same year as the deaths of the Prince Johannes II, the previous owner of the painting, and of his picture adviser Wilhelm von Bode, the then General Director of the Berlin Museums. The former died in February 1929, the latter a month later, in March. Moreover, we know that the Prince himself had weeded out a considerable number of pictures, Samson and Delilah included. He also financed many research projects, and the collection was accessible to scholars. The art historian Wilhelm von Bode published (in 1896) the first comprehensive and illustrated book on the Liechtenstein collection, so he could have been aware of the Samson and Delilah’s disposal. Why didn’t he identify the picture as the long lost Rubens if he was also a Rubens expert and had even co-signed certificates of authenticity with Ludwig Burchard?

In 1927 the drawing was bought from a private collector by a scholar of drawings and prints, I.Q. van Regteren Altena, for 26 guilders as a Van Dyck (whose initials it still bears). It was promptly upgraded to Rubens by Burchard, who then cited it as such in his 1930 certificate of authenticity for the Honthorst on offer by a Berlin dealer that is now in the National Gallery as an entirely autograph Rubens.

A precursor or a successor – or both?

It is claimed that Rubens’ characteristic stylistic development through stages of work is evident in the three works’ sequence, when the essential motif remains remarkably constant throughout. In fact, the modello (see Figs. 5 and 7) is so like the finished work that one supporter of the attribution, the former senior curator of the National Gallery, David Jaffe, has suggested that this oil sketch might be a ricordoa record of the finished painting[!] However, if the presently accepted 1, 2 and 3 sequence of drawing, oil sketch, finished painting were to become 1, 3 and 2, it would make nonsense of the National Gallery’s technical reports which stated that the finished picture’s uncharacteristic thin, swift and little-revised paint work – paint work which today remains preternaturally fresh and unblemished (see Figs. 10 and 11) – was a product of the fact that Rubens had made such an unusually complete and resolved oil sketch that he had been able to paint the larger panel (which, the gallery claims, itself resembles a large sketch) out of his head and at a stroke and without any need for his customary revisions. Then again, the ricordo suggestion constitutes, perhaps, a kind of insurance policy, a way of covering against the possible outcomes of an eventual debate and presentation of evidence? If so, the sequence 1, 2, 3 and 2 again, would make a kind of institutional sense? This might indeed constitute a veritable “belt and braces” insurance: given that the gallery has admitted that its large finished panel is so very swift and sure-footed in its execution (or uncharacteristically sloppy and out-of-character to its critics), that it is itself but an over-blown sketch, the formulation 1, 2/4, 3/2 and 2 might serve perfectly to cover all eventualities.

The evidence of our eyes

The Samson and Delilah ink sketch, as a drawing, lacks the customary force, focus and eloquence of design seen in Rubens’ initial compositional ideas (- see Figs. 8b, 9a and 16). This supposed preliminary study has a curiously finished, pictorial air. Iconographically it has a pronounced “portmanteau” quality, showing, for example, Delilah’s draped right leg as seen in the secure Rubens oil sketch of 1609-10, The Taking of Samson in Chicago, while her draped left leg is as seen in the insecure National Gallery picture. Most disturbingly (to this draughtsman, at least) is that fact that when looking at the drawing in the flesh it is impossible to read an order or purpose to which its many and various components might have been made or to locate the essential, determining compositional and figural point at which Rubens always and brilliantly drove (see Figs. 8b and 16).

A ruled ink border surrounds and compositionally confines the ink and wash drawing (Fig. 1). When seen in reproduction, this border gives an impression that Rubens designed a format from the outset precisely in order to achieve an effect that is the single most problematic feature of the finished painting – the fact that the toes on Samson’s right foot were cropped at the edge of the painting. The border, like the drawing, is drawn in brown ink but clearly, as Christie’s describes, it can be seen by eye to comprise later framing lines. However, while this usage is seen to be common in the collection where the drawing has lived since 1927 – and while the border lines themselves can be seen to pass over a number of tiny losses on the edges of the sheet – the particular placement of the border is disquieting because the sheet on which the drawing was made has been trimmed at either the outside edges of the border or even within the border lines themselves. Why and when was this done? While some of the ink lines of the drawing can be seen by eye to run into the ruled borders, we cannot calculate where they might have terminated because of the severity of the sheet’s cropping. For whatever reason, this is now an artificially constrained and possibly edited image.

Flouting historical evidence

While the toes on Samson’s right foot are cropped at the edge of the National Gallery painting (Fig. 12), both of the contemporary copies that were made of the original Rubens painting show the foot, as painted by Rubens, to have been both whole and set well within the right-hand edge of the painting (see Figs. 4, 5 and 6). It is hard to see on what grounds this testimony might be disregarded: the first copy, an engraving (see Fig. 14), was made in c 1613 and very possibly under Rubens’ instruction. The second was a painting in oil commissioned by Rockox to show off his collection of paintings in the grand salon of his home (see Figs. 6 and 13). Is it conceivable that he – and Rubens, who was still alive – would have permitted a man famous for the accuracy of his records, to make a gratuitous, out-of-character “improvement” to the Rubens painting that occupied pride of place above the mantelpiece? Because of the inked box and the trimmed sheet it is not possible to determine whether the drawing’s author might originally have drawn the foot whole.

The panel support of the modello, as reproduced in the catalogue (see Fig. 7), is seen to have been cropped on its vertical edges since being sold to the Cincinnati Art Museum by the removal of two strips of wood, thereby conferring a clear crop onto Samson’s foot and bringing it into accord with the foot seen in both the National Gallery picture and the ink drawing. At one point the Cincinnati Museum claimed that the oil sketch’s panel was made of oak. When the picture was loaned to the National Gallery we asked if the panel was oak or softwood. It was not possible to say, we were told, because the back of the frame was enclosed and the gallery was not permitted to remove it. The museum today ducks the issue by saying that its painting is “on panel”.

The National Gallery’s picture was doctored at some undisclosed point by planing rather than cutting. The gallery restored the picture after purchasing it and reported that the panel had been planed down to a thickness of 2-3mm and set into a sheet of block-board. We knew for technical reasons that that was most unlikely: block-board is held together by its outer veneer layers and cutting one of them away would have had catastrophic structural consequences. When pressed, the gallery acknowledged that the planed-down panel had in fact been glued onto, and not set into, a larger sheet of block-board, with its edges being concealed by a bevelled putty. The restorer, David Bomford (now of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), said in his report, that the planing had taken place at some point in the early twentieth, or possibly during the late 19th century. That, too struck us as improbable: could there be no record of the back of a panel bought for a world record price (£2.5m) for a Rubens? Had the gallery not made a record of condition when the picture was loaned to it before the sale at Christie’s? We asked Neil MacGregor, if the gallery had any record of the back – and he said not. We asked if we might see picture’s conservation dossiers and there found Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity, which described the panel as being intact and in excellent health.

At Christie’s we asked, and were kindly permitted, to examine the back of the drawing which is said to bear other drawings. A little (unintelligible) drawing is present but most of the surface bears the remains of a second sheet of paper to which the ink sketch had once been pasted. Effectively, the drawing’s verso is invisible – just as is the back of the National Gallery’s picture, any evidence on which has ceased to exist.

As for the contention – made against the evidence of the contemporary copies – that Rubens deliberately cropped Samson’s toes at every stage of the work, we know that he was very attentive to his toes. When drawing one of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, he ran out of room on the paper for the toes on one of the feet and then drew them separately elsewhere on the sheet. On his return from Italy, and virtually simultaneously with working on the Samson and Delilah, Rubens made the magnificent Michelangelesque study of a nude man kneeling shown at Fig. 17. On that sheet, the right foot was truncated by the edge of the paper and, again, Rubens redrew the whole lower leg so as to include the foot and toes.

What kind of artist was Rubens?

The National Gallery has admitted that its painting is not typical of Rubens’s oeuvre, which fact it attempts to explain by claiming that immediately after his return to Antwerp from a long stay in Italy, Rubens was working “experimentally”. Unfortunately, it so happens that at the date of the Samson and Delilah’s execution, Rubens was also working on the very large altarpiece The Raising of the Cross (see Fig. 10). No one has ever suggested that that great work occupied a position in some experimental mode. To the bizarre and unsupported suggestion that Rubens, on his return from Italy, simultaneously worked experimentally and not-experimentally within the same brief period, Christie’s lend support with a contention that:

“The exact date of Samson and Delilah is unclear, partly because Rubens experimented with two very different approaches to the same subject in these post-Italian years.”

The truth is that attempts to keep this Burchard-initiated show on the road require that everything today be considered part of a moveable feast. It is neither a satisfactory situation nor a tenable position. Attribution is a difficult and taxing activity at the best of times and there is no shame in admitting error – and least of all with Rubens. As we put it in the 2006 Spring Journal:

“The upgrading of copies or studio works to autograph status frequently flouts the most elementary visual and methodological safeguards. Identification of the autograph hand of a master requires a ‘good eye’, sound method, and a recognition that comparisons are of the essence, that like should be compared with like. Procedural fastidiousness and visual acuity are nowhere more essential than with Rubens, who not only ran a large studio of highly talented assistant/followers but who famously placed a very high premium on studio works that had been modified or finished off by his own hand. When wishing to claim unreserved autograph status for a ‘Rubens’, it would seem imperative that some plausible connection between the aspirant and an unquestionably secure work be established. With the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah, exemption is claimed on grounds that this work was special product of a peculiar moment in the artist’s career. Unfortunately for the attribution – and the picture’s supporters – this special ‘moment’ coincides precisely with a work of bedrock security – The Raising of the Cross of 1609-1610. An artist’s designs and motifs are easily replicated – and with Rubens, were often intended to be so ‘in house’. Pronounced similarities of subject matter or motif, therefore, are no guarantors of authenticity. What is most distinctive to a master and impossible to replicate – even by close associates within his own studio – is what is termed his touch, his individual, characteristic manner and speed of execution. Artistic mastery lies in some particular combination of technical fluency and commanding thought. The quality of an artist’s thoughts and his authorial ‘fingerprints’ are certainly made manifest in and through material – it cannot be otherwise – but only in material as handled, not in terms of its intrinsic, chemically analysable composition. A flat-footed analysis of the material components of pictures can no more corroborate authorship than they can validate a restoration. There are no material tests for authenticity…”

Update:

16.00, 10-07-14. The editor of Jackdaw, David Lee, writes to point out that, R W P de Vries, the person who sold the Samson and Delilah ink sketch produces this note, when Googled:

“Reinier Willem Petrus de Vries Jr. (Amsterdam , March 3, 1874 – Hilversum , 27 May 1953 ) was a Dutch artist. He was a painter , illustrator , book cover designer , and made ??etchings and woodcuts . He was a student at the State Normal School in Amsterdam, obtained his MO drawing. From 1913 to 1935 he was a teacher at a secondary school in Hilversum.”

The Jackdaw’s distinguished editor reflects: “An artist and secondary school teacher who flogs drawings. Not exactly what you’d expect…” No, indeed, but precisely the kind of thing about which we have learned not to expect to be given information.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: The pen and wash brown ink drawing that is said to be “the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London”.
Above, Figs. 2 and 3: The covers of ArtWatch UK journals given to discussions of the attribution of the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah panel painting.
Above, Figs. 4 and 5: The two centre spread pages of the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21, showing the connections between: Rubens’ two oil sketches of Samson being taken and of being blinded; the engraved copy of the original, now lost, Rubens Samson and Delilah made by Jacob Matham, c. 1613; part of Frans Francken II’s painting of The Great Salon of Nicolaas Rockox’s house with Rubens’ original Samson and Delilah, as seen above the mantelpiece at some point between 1615 and 1640; the ink sketch said to be Rubens’s original design for the National Gallery Samson and Delilah; the Samson and Delilah painting on panel at the National Gallery; and, the panel at the Cincinnati museum that is said to be either a preliminary sketch for the National Gallery Samson and Delilah painting or a record of it made afterwards.
Above, Figs. 6 and 7: The presentation in Christie’s sale catalogue of a detail (top) of Frans Frankens’ copy of the original Rubens Samson and Deliah; and (above), the Cincinnati panel as seen after strips of wood on the vertical edges had been removed, producing a more emphatic cropping of Samson’s toes.
Although the Francken painted record testifies to the original ‘wholeness’ of Samson’s foot, the catalogue entry does not discuss this awkward evidence. Nor is the fact of the reduction by the removal of two vertical strips on the Cincinnati panel discussed.
Above, Figs. 8a and 8b: showing a detail (left) of the Samson and Delilah ink sketch, and (right) a detail of Rubens’s ink drawing at the Washington National Gallery, Venus Lamenting Adonis, of c. 1608-12. We find the suggestion that Rubens might have been drawing during this period in two such radically opposed styles, and with such great disparities of accomplishment, to be simply beyond belief. Nowhere does one see in Rubens’ drawings arms that appear to have digested or acquired disconnected pieces of drapery of the type seen on the barber’s left arm and Delilah’s right arm in the Samson and Delilah ink sketch.
Above, Figs. 9a and 9b: Left, a detail (flipped) of the British Museum’s Rubens Venus Lamenting Adonis, and (right) a detail of the Samson and Delilah ink drawing.
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Top, an indisputably autograph version of Rubens’ striking blond female head type, as seen on his The Raising of the Cross altarpiece, and, above, in a version of that type found in Delilah’s head on the National Gallery panel. Aside from uncertainties of drawing in the National Gallery head, the differences of paintwork and evidence of age in the two works is striking.
Above Fig. 12: The National Gallery Samson and Delilah, as reproduced in our Journal No. 21.
Above, Fig. 13: A detail of Frans Francken’s record of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah, as reproduced in our Journal No. 21.
Above, 14: Jacob Matham’s engraved copy in a late impression of c.1613 with added hair on Delilah’s neck (and here flipped) of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah, as produced in our journal.
Above, Fig. 15: A greyscale version of the Samson and Delilah ink sketch.
Above, Fig. 16: The British Museum’s Rubens c.1608-12 ink drawing Venus Lamenting Adonis.
Above, Fig. 17: Rubens’ study Nude Man Kneeling at the Museum Boymans, Rotterdam, which includes a drawing made separately of the right leg so as to show the foot and toes. This drawn study was made in preparation for Rubens’ painting of 1609, The Adoration of the Magi. It therefore shows that, as with Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross, Rubens returned from Italy saturated in Michelangelo and classical sculpture, pounding with energy, enthusiasm and inspiration, and altogether in no need of engaging in “experimentalism” of the kind fancifully attributed to wrongly upgraded works.
Julian Held (who accepted the Samson and Delilah ink sketch) wrote of the Nude Man Kneeling in his critical catalogue in Rubens ~ Selected Drawings:
“L. Burchard alone (Cat.Exh.London, 1950) seems to doubt the early date of this drawing, which has always been connected with the Adoration of the Magi of 1609 in the Prado (KdK.26)…there is every reason to assume that the drawing in Rotterdam, as well as the one in the Louvre, was made in 1609 when Rubens prepared the Madrid Adoration”
Held also accepted the Cincinnati oil modello/ricordo even when made aware that it was, unprecedentedly, painted on soft wood and not on an oak panel.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Review: Who Cleaned the Queen’s Windows and the Lady’s Pearls?

12 July 2013

Restorers (aka conservationists) love conferences – and trade organisations. Today, as previously mentioned, a one day conference (“The Picture So Far…50 Years of Painting Conservation”) is being held at the Royal Institution in London. Sponsored by Christie’s, it has been ambitiously organised and presented by the British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR) as a major retrospective as well as a discussion of the future of painting conservation:

Fifty years ago as the nation was emerging from post-war depression, caring for the nation’s heritage became imbued with higher ideals, reflecting a new found optimism and confidence in organisation, technology and cultural harmony. This conference will examine and celebrate the aspirations of and achievements of the early conservation pioneers. Pre-eminent speakers will trace the trajectory of conservation practice, philosophy, teaching, technology and professional organisation over the last half century. Leading us to examine the fundamental principles of our profession today and appraise the challenges that will face the next generation of practitioners.”

Listening to restorers it might never be appreciated that art conservation is now a massive and controversial vested interest, a big business with a perpetually shifting ideology that doubles as self-promotion. Chemical and other manufacturers promote their wares through restoration trade advertisements and fairs. There are substantial educational interests. Conservation training (degrees and doctorates are now given) converts arts and science degrees alike into hard job opportunities, increasing numbers of which are in the secure, superannuated public sector. (On the content of conservation training, see Ruth Osborne and Einav Zamir below.) Every last little museum boasts or craves an in-house conservation department and all the technical paraphernalia that goes with it. Sponsorship is easily attained – who would not want to be associated with saving art? For petro-chemical giants sponsoring prestigious museum art conservation programmes makes particular image-improving sense. Development plans for museums are virtually guaranteed fund-raising success if an expansion of “conservation facilities” (along with “educational outreach”) is cited.

Listening to restorers it might never be gathered that regardless of good intentions, their “treatments” irrevocably alter both the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. The alterations that materialise are made on the back of promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions. The history of restoration repeatedly shows (see right) contrary outcomes and resulting controversies. Throughout the twentieth century restorers have sought to convert public opprobrium into professional approbation by mimicking other professional forms – in particular those of medicine. The International Institute for Conservation (IIC) gives a biennial prize (The Keck Award – see our post of 8 January 2011) specifically for those considered to have best increased public appreciation of “the accomplishments of the conservation profession”. Acting directly on the late Caroline Keck’s advice, every conservator/restorer nowadays is his or her own cheerleader.

One of the speakers at the “Picture so far…” conference tomorrow, is the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, who is to talk on changes of fashion in the “Presentation of Old Masters”. A case in point might be the National Gallery’s current “Vermeer and Music” exhibition where (paying) visitors are confronted on entry not with works of art – or even with instruments of music-making, but with a gallery full of conservation propaganda. At the entrance to the exhibition, the first wall panel of public indoctrination reads:

Vermeer and Changes over Time The passage of more than three hundred years has inevitably left its mark on Vermeer’s paintings. Some of these changes are the result of external factors; some are due to the inherent properties of the materials used; and some are the result of imperfections in the artist’s own technique.”

Not a word is said about the consequences of the restorations that the pictures on show have undergone. Blaming that artist’s technique while not discussing the material actions of restorers is an evasion and a slur. Insofar as conservator-restorers ever allude to restoration injuries, they euphemise them as “abrasions”, “rubbing” or “wearing” – as if, once upon a time, pictures abraded themselves. Where once-alike works are rendered unlike by restorations, blame is not attached to the agents of change. Instead, restorers opt see colourful diversity in works that now express not so much themselves but their “different conservation histories”. We maintain that restorers, who alone are licensed to act upon picture surfaces, should be held properly and fully to account for the changes they make. Two Vermeers in the two National Gallery show might serve as cases in point (see right).

The National Gallery’s conservation dossiers (to which we enjoy full and helpful access) show that the gallery’s two Vermeer paintings have provided something of a playground for restorers. In the fifty years between 1945 and 1994, Vermeer’s poor “Lady Seated at the Virginal” received no fewer than nine bouts of “treatment” – including being lined twice within three years. The last item of treatment (in 1994) was entered tersely into the conservation dossier as “Retouching in face and neck corrected (Bomford). Surface cleaned, revarnished”. No photographic record of this intervention was to be found. When we asked the restorer, David Bomford (who speaks today on “Three Days That Changed Conservation”), he said that this omission was because “there were no real changes – it was simply a matter of glazing a few small sections of the previous retouching which had discoloured slightly.” Such lackadaisical visual record-keeping is surprisingly common in venerable institutions. When our colleague, Michel Favre Favre-Felix, of ARIPA, noticed two unwarranted and bungled attempts to repaint a Veronese mouth and asked to see the Louvre’s documentation on them, he was told that none existed because the repainting was merely a “localised intervention”. A Louvre spokeswoman later described it as a simple sprucing-up (“bichonnée”) and added triumphantly: “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.

Restorers wield many swords. They repair and sometimes remove the backs of pictures. They apply “cradles” to the backs of panels and then remove them when they aggravate the conditions they were designed to prevent. They “line” extra, new canvas onto the backs of old paintings canvasses with glues, wax-resins, hot irons or heated vacuum tables. Where canvases are already lined, restorers strip off the earlier linings and then immediately replace them with new ones. They strip down the fronts of pictures with a variety of methods and materials that are controversial within the profession itself – Richard Wolbers, a speaker at today’s conference, will talk on one such: “Aqueous Cleaning Methods in Fine Art Conservation: 1984-2014”. When the fronts of pictures are completely stripped down, restorers attempt to put them back together with their own additional painting…which future restorers will piously remove as alien accretions. There has never been a make-work project like art restoration. Every aspect of it spawns multiple and international conferences. The artistically critical repainting stage of restoration is – for well-founded reasons – a source of intense anxiety not just to art lovers but to the practitioners themselves.

In 2010, Archetype Publications, in association with The British Association of Paintings Conservator-Restorers (BAPCR) and the Icon Paintings Group, published a manual on retouching damaged paintings – “Mixing and Matching ~ Approaches to Retouching Paintings”*. Icon is a (charitable) trade body that presents itself as:

[T]he UK’s leading voice for the conservation of our precious cultural heritage. We raise awareness of the cultural, social and economic value of caring for our heritage and champion high standards of conservation…It brings together over three thousand individuals and organisations. Its membership embraces the wider conservation community, incorporating not only professional conservators in all disciplines, but all others who share a commitment to improving understanding of and access to our cultural heritage.”

In their Foreword (which strikes an unfortunate “Blue Peter” tone), the book’s three editors, Rebecca Ellison, Patricia Smithen and Rachel Turnbull, explain how their publication follows the structure of three one-day events organised by the Icon paintings group and BAPCR in 2007. The series took place because of a “burning desire to expand knowledge, exchange ideas and gain more practice” on retouching. It was recognised that there was a pressing need for “a practical kind of conference dealing with the actual techniques”. This need exists in part because when it comes to retouching the earlier damage that cleanings deliberately lay bare (- and often themselves compound) – “every conservator-restorer tends to harbour preferences for materials and practices based on experience, types of artworks as well as what is available to hand.”

The ICON/BAPCR conference/workshop series was conceived as “showcase” for the expert, and as a means of providing a “welcoming and supportive” environment to those wishing to learn by “listening and looking (in the morning lecture series)” and by “doing (in the afternoon practice sessions”. By all accounts, the symposia exceeded expectations and very jolly times were had in the packed lecture theatres and demonstration galleries and workshops. This professionally successful format had precisely been devised for encouraging discussion and sharing experiences between those practitioners who are presently “locked in a retouching rut”.

Some years ago we were assured that while our criticisms of the National Gallery’s restoration practices were sound, we were being inadvertently unfair to the high standards of expertise then prevailing in the commercial sector that served the art trade. In support of this claim, we were taken to a top-end restorer’s studio to see a client’s work in the course of treatment. The painting concerned was an early portrait which had lost all colour in the flesh tones. Its high-born subject had just received a revivifying application of pink glaze to the cheeks. When we expressed concern about this palpably alien patch of glaze which had passed without modification from cheek to cheek across the bridge of the nose, the conservator-restorer was unfazed: “That’s no problem – it’s easily reversible. I can do it again”. In an ante-room a young restorer was retouching holes in a cleaned landscape by Laura Knight, RA, on the testimony of a black and white photograph of the painting taken before the restoration began with the removal of varnish.

In 1946, the Times published this letter from Knight:

Sir, -With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment on to canvas or panel-always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”

Retouching is made necessary whenever varnishes and earlier retouching are removed. Varnishes are removed for the “offence” of having discoloured – when that is their nature, they cannot, as artists recognise, do otherwise. New varnishes are then applied which will in turn discolour (and worse, if they are synthetic, not natural) and then be removed in turn. On this merry-go-round of undoing and redoing, a little bit (or more) paint is lost each time to the restorer’s solvents and abrasive swabs, and a little bit (or a lot) of new paint is then added. What is conspicuous about these supposed and claimed recoveries of “original” conditions is that no “restored” painting ever returns to its previous state, when last restored. Each restoration introduces a further, compounding change that falsifies the original work in a game of artistic Chinese Whispers. Rare works that have escaped repeated restorations are highly prized and at a commercial premium. Restorers, however, are unfazed by the falsifications that they introduce, and at the top end of the museum trade such idiosyncratic “interpretive” impositions on unique historical artefacts are positively celebrated.

In the National Gallery’s pocket guides “Conservation of Paintings”, its former senior restorer, David Bomford, acknowledges that pictures are now “changed primarily for aesthetic reasons” (p. 53) and that restorations are carried out on the “aesthetic objectives of those responsible for the cleaning” (p. 45). Moreover, although the “different aesthetic decisions” taken by individual restorers produce results that “may look very different”, all such different outcomes are “equally valid”, provided only that they have been carried out “safely” (p. 53).

These claims are alarming and might be thought intellectually naïve: in matters of aesthetic and artistic integrity, the “safety” or otherwise of the cleaning materials is a red herring. If pictures end up looking different it is because they have been made (irreversibly) different. Restorers should be given no blank professional cheques. No less than bona fide creative people like artists, writers and musicians, they should be subject to critical scrutiny at all times.

Michael Daley

*Mixing and Matching ~ Approaches to Retouching Paintings”, Eds. Rebecca Ellison, Patricia Smithen and Rachell Turnbull, Archetype Publications Ltd, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-904982-25-0.

The Education of Art Conservators – Examining the Field at its Foundations: Do university programs provide sufficient training?

About ten years ago, popular media outlets such as National Geographic News and the Boston Phoenix started reporting on what has come to be colloquially known as the “CSI Effect.” According to many American legal professionals, jurors in criminal trials increasingly favor forensic analysis over eye witnesses or circumstantial evidence, possibly as a result of popular television programs, such as CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), that inflate the role of forensics in the investigation and prosecution of major crimes.[1] In other words, the general public has come to trust digital scans over their own eyes, test strips over personal experience. A similar trend seems to be happening in the world of art conservation. More and more, historical knowledge and technical skill have been neglected in favor of scientific know-how. This development is perhaps best demonstrated within the training facilities for prospective conservators. In the past few weeks, the ArtWatch team has done its own crime scene investigation in order to determine what young and often impressionable individuals are being taught about the role of conservation in the study of art…”

Ruth C. Osborne and Einav Zamir

To read more of this report, click on:

http://artwatchinternational.org/articles/the-education-of-art-conservators

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Changes made when repainting losses can be immense and perplexing. What accounts in the above “Mix and Match” face for changes to the already-cleaned state that preceded the “infilling”? What lightened the post-cleaning flesh tones and sharpened features like the nose, which acquired a highlight? What gave rise to the curious little groove that turned the downwards curving nostril apperture upwards? Do today’s restorers comprehend the anatomical genesis of the immensely elusive complexities of nose/mouth relationships that tax even graphic artists working from photographs of the subject (as in the author’s drawing below)?
Above Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, which has been loaned by the Queen to the current National Gallery show, as recorded in 1942 (top) and as today, above. Photographs and photographic reproductions can vary but what reproductive variations might account for the diverse changes in this painting? Formerly the glass on the windows was distinctly coloured – yellow throughout in the lower band, and yellow and blue in the upper window. One of the light tiles (adjacent to the viola da gamba) had a distinctly blue cast, as if from the window. After cleaning, as seen more clearly in the details below, all of the glass in the upper window now looks clear, and the ceiling beams and window sashes all look less substantial and structural through the solvent-induced debilitation of their former tone/colours. Bizarrely, the shadowed side of the rug has acquired intensely bright blues. If the picture is now as originally painted, by what magical powers had a discoloured varnish imparted passages of blue and yellow in precise accord with the window’s glazing bars and beefed up the room’s architectural elements? The Vermeer scholar Arthur Wheelock says of the lighting in this room: “From the shadows of the leading in the glass on the window frames to the multiple shadows on the sunlit wall behind the mirror or virginal top, [Vermeer] convinces the viewer of the flow of light into the room. Upon examining these light effects, however, one realizes not only how carefully Vermeer observed its various characteristics, but also how he used them selectively and creatively…” (Vermeer and the Art of Painting”, 1995.) All perfectly true, but those values are no longer what they once were. Should we not notice? Should we not care?
The National Gallery’s Vermeer, A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, is shown below in the late 1930s (on the left) and (on the right) as today. As so often, we find the not-yet-restored work more vivacious in its tonal values, which values brilliantly create a lucid and coherent spatial arrangement in which primacy is given to the central figure. In today’s condition too many values are diminished and conflated. On the face, (absolutely typical) restoration losses of the modelling that formerly had properly set the eyes in the head, have given undue emphasis to the irises and pupils and resulted in a “piggy” apearance.
The losses seen above and in the close-up of the face below (available on a vintage poster of an earlier exhibition at the National Gallery that is now on sale – for £20) raise profound questions for Vermeer scholars who tend to take every state bequeathed by restorers at face value as a recovery and a revelation. Melanie Gifford (“Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer’s Technique [faulty, as the National Gallery tells us]”, in the 1998 proceedings of the symposia “New Vermeer Studies”) says of the greatly distressed passage of drapery above: “In a work from the end of his career…Vermeer allowed the lace of the musician’s sleeve to dissolve in an evanescent cloud of dots…”
The late painter and founder member of ArtWatch, Frank Mason, said of the two states of this painting as recorded in black and white photographs: “…you can see that the restorers have considerably lightened the wall behind the figure. The wall is so light relative to the window, in fact, that it is now unclear which surface represents the source of light. They have lightened the cherub in the painting on the wall behind the figure, so weakening the shadows in the cherub figure that his right leg now merges with the background. They have rubbed the little landscapes in the scene, both on the wall and on the open cover of the virginal, obliterating the shadows in the forms of the clouds, rendering them flat. One can plainly see, even in black and white, that this painting has been astonishingly altered from the one in which the viewer’s eye was drawn to the brightest area, which had been the woman’s face, to one in which the viewer’s eye is drawn to look first at the big flat planes of the wall, then to the flat planes of the poor cherub, and so on, finally resting at last on the now dim and receding face… It should be noted that that this transformation needs to be seen in colour to be truly appreciated; her formerly rosy, glowing little face has lost its glazes and is now truly green.”
One consequence of the loss of glazes to which Mason referred is that the solid reflective lights of the pearls in the necklace are becoming ever more isolated from the paint which once conferred form to them. We have come to suspect, from the silence that greeted our complaints in the Autumn 2001 ArtWatch UK Journal against the butchery inflicted on the painting below, that scholars may have fallen too deeply into a dependency culture with the conservators – whose “findings” they routinely transmute – ever to complain about injuries to the modest stock of Vermeer paintings.
Of restorers, Mason observed: “[They] can be very disparaging about outsiders who question their technical judgement. I have been accused, for instance, of being ‘an artist, not a chemist’, as if that should be considered a scathing indictment. As artists we know that a fine oil painting does not possess a hard impermeable surface, but that is comprised of layers of ground pigments, suspended in elastic films of various oils and varnishes, which are superimposed, interwoven, and melting into each other in a way which not even the artist can accurately map. In spite of what conservators would have us believe, science cannot objectively scrutinise a painting and accurately enumerate all of its components in a meaningful way; a plain chemical analysis is too crude a tool to measure the ineffable.”
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Discovered Predictions: Secrecy and Unaccountability at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

25th February 2011

Impeccable condition in a painting is more of a goad than a deterrent to restorers. When the youthful Thomas Hoving was appointed director of the Metropolitan Museum in 1967, he formed a respectful – even deferential – alliance with the (then) head of picture conservation, Hubert von Sonnenburg. Two decades earlier in London, the National Gallery’s director, Philip Hendy, forged a similarly dependent relationship with the German émigré restorer Helmut Ruhemann. Ironically, von Sonnenburg had presented as the heir-apparent to Johannes Hell, another German émigré to Britain who’s mild and gradual cleanings were widely preferred to Ruhemann’s controversially swift “total cleanings”.

Hoving and von Sonnenburg together stalked one of Velazquez’s finest portraits, his Juan de Pareja, which the Met acquired in 1970 for a world record $4.5m. Although, on their own testimony, that picture was in superb condition and had never even been lined, on acquisition it was whisked to Wildenstein and Company, “for secrecy”, as Hoving later admitted. There, Von Sonnenburg secretly “proceeded to discover”, as Hoving put it, “everything he had predicted he’d find”.

It was not unprecedented for a museum director to have a major acquisition secretly restored. Sir Charles Eastlake, scorched by National Gallery cleaning controversies in 19th century Britain, had his acquisitions cleaned in Italy before bringing them to the gallery. Secrecy in conservation can seem systemic: in 1960, when the National Gallery constructed “modern” purpose-built conservation studios, part of one was partitioned by a wall, behind which the chief restorer could work on projects of “particular difficulty or confidentiality”, as a then National Gallery restorer, David Bomford, put it in 1978.

Eastlake made no photographic record of the pre-restoration condition of his acquisitions – even though he happily used photographs for attributing paintings, and must, as president of the Royal Photographic Society, have appreciated photography’s unprecedented testimonial capacities. Fortunately, photographic records of the Sonnenburg/Hoving Velazquez restoration were kept and published by the Metropolitan Museum (in an undated booklet – see right). While these photographs may not be of the highest, digital age, standards, they are nevertheless “of a piece” and permit comparisons between recorded states to be drawn.

Much as von Sonnenburg thrilled over an impeccably preserved, never-lined canvas, he could not resist tampering with it. Two of its edges had been folded over on the stretcher. This fact was presented to Hoving as a “discovery”, even though it had been reported by the Velazquez specialist José Lopez-Rey seven years earlier. The folded canvas strips were opened, flattened and reinforced with new canvas to extend the picture’s format and diminish its subject, shifting him leftwards and downwards (see right). The justification for this compositional “recovery” was that original paint had been applied to the folded strips, but the pictorial testimony of that paint, when first revealed, was not photographically disclosed – see account on the right.

Von Sonnenburg, it seemed, could not resist the urge to “liberate” the painting’s supposed “pure flesh tones” and thereby leave the dark-skinned servant’s face lighter and pinker. By stripping off “varnish” von Sonnenburg also caused previously unified components to detach themselves from each other:

the rounded shape of Pareja’s forehead, for example, is defined only by a large spot of impasto-crisp in the center, bordered by dragged spurs – applied directly on the thin underpainting. When seen close up, the highlight seems to be floating over the paint in an almost measurable distance…

This was a classic restoration apologia. Even the emergence of a formerly hidden streak of flesh-coloured paint on the background was presented as an act of liberation and recovery:

Attention should be drawn to the single dragged brushstroke of light skin colour in the center of the background at the right…Unquestionably, this randomly applied paint is original, and shows how Velazquez chose to try out his loaded brush on the background…Such spontaneity, combined with the greatest subtlety of color and technique make the Juan de Pareja one of Velazquez’s most painterly works.

Convinced that Velazquez had happily left his own brush-wipings visible on one of his two finest portraits (the second being his Pope Innocent X), and that he had used glazes less than Titian, von Sonnenburg was not dismayed when his cleaned painting betrayed markedly less colouring and reduced to a “predominantly gray color scheme”. His rationale for losses of colour and of spatial and plastic coherence; for the flattening of a formerly prodigiously well-modelled and sympathetically lit head; and for the spatial inverting of a background that formerly receded, was audaciously lame: in 1938 an English restorer, Horace Buttery, had described the doublet as “dark gray”. Despite recognising that the painting had – miraculously – shown “no signs of ever having been abused by solvent action during the past”, von Sonnenburg nonetheless contended that it must have been cleaned and varnished “at times”. On that basis, he speculated that it could therefore safely be assumed to have been so restored by Buttery, and, therefore, to have enabled him, on that occasion, correctly to have read the doublet’s true colour. This hypothetical daisy-chain was presented as a proof, despite the fact that before and after Mr Buttery, the garment had always been described as a “green doublet” – not least by Velazquez’s biographer, Antonio Palomino who in 1724 precisely reported “a muted green for Juan’s doublet”.

After their stripping and repainting of pictures, restorers invariably apply fresh varnishes… which in turn discolour and thereby serve as a pretext for another “restoration”. With successive varnish removals, solvents deplete, embrittle and optically alter paint films. When penetrated by solvents, paint films heat, swell and soften so that even the friction of cotton wool abrades them – as the restorer Caroline Keck admitted. Soluble plastic components of the paint itself are carried off by evaporating solvents. Restorers sometimes claim that because old paintings have so frequently been abused in the past, there is nothing left to extract today – but with the Juan de Pareja, no such claim could be made. At the same time, they sometimes admit that cleaning pictures with thick paint is easier than cleaning ones with thin paint. (If cleaning methods really were as safe as is claimed, it would not matter whether the paint being treated was thick or thin.) When stripped to a restorer’s conception of “clean”, the remaining paint is left parched, absorbent, matt and in need of “nourishment” by varnishes.

When new varnishes (i.e. resins dissolved in solvents) are applied, they penetrate and amalgamate with the parched paint thereby making the next cleaning the more hazardous, and so on ad infinitum. If we are lucky, von Sonnenburg will have used a natural resin varnish. If not, if he subscribed to the Met’s then hi-tech enthusiasms, he will have used a synthetic resin in the confident but erroneous expectation that it would not discolour and that it would remain easily soluble.

In 1966 a restorer at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts deplored the use of untested synthetic materials, judging them “all right for space ships” but not for old master paintings. By 1995 a conservation scientist, Tom Learner, reported that synthetic resins which had “appeared to offer” advantages over natural ones “are now known to be inherently unstable”. In 1998 the Met’s (present) Chairman of European Painting, Keith Christiansen, admitted that synthetic varnishes used at the Metropolitan Museum had turned not yellow but grey and had “cross-linked with the pigments below, meaning that removal is, if not impossible, extremely difficult”.

Dr Christiansen has yet to reply to the question ArtWatch and ARIPA put to him on February 6th, concerning the Met’s intentions towards its new, miraculously well-preserved Perino del Vaga painting.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Velazquez’s oil on canvas portrait Juan de Pareja, before treatment at Wldenstein and Company and when still “covered by a yellowish brown varnish and with the top and right edges folded over” (- as described in an undated, untitled Metropolitan Museum booklet that contained essays by the museum’s President, Douglas Dillon; Director, Thomas Hoving; Vice-Director, Curator-in-Chief, Theodore Rousseau; Curator-in-Charge, European Paintings, Everett Fahy; and Conservator, Hubert von Sonnenburg).
Above, Fig. 2: the Juan de Pareja during treatment when the top and right margins had been unfolded; paint losses had been filled with putty; and new red-brown paint covered some of the fillings and was to serve as a priming for the final “touching up“. At this point, the “discolored varnish” had been removed from the right-hand side of the picture. (This photograph and the one above were by courtesy of Wildenstein and Company.)
Above, Fig. 3: the Juan de Parejaafter cleaning and restoration“. (Photograph was by Taylor & Dull, Inc.)
Above, Fig. 1, detail showing warm orange-red layer over the background and tonal modelling on the lace collar.
Above, Fig. 3, detail showing loss of red on background and the new flattened, whiter-than-white collar.
Above, Fig. 1, detail. Note the relatively small area of lights on the face. Note, too, the large proportion of warm reds and in particular their deployment at all the points at which the forms of the face turn away from the viewer at the profile. At this stage, none of the light passages in the face abutted the black of the hair, the warm red mid-tones formed transitions between the brightest lights and the darkest darks.
Above, Fig. 3, detail. Note, in comparison with the untreated image above it, the profound transformations of pictorial values and language system that occurred as a consequence of this so-called “restoration”. In the post-cleaning and post-restoration state (for both activities took place extensively), the new lighter, cooler background asserts its presence more, in an entirely historically innapropriate modernist, “abstract” fashion. The former, highly selective and focussed placement of the the brightest lights on the collar (which articulated the forms) have been lost in the great expansion of whiteness. The general lightening of the background around the head introduces a halo-effect not previously present. The new light passages to the (viewer’s) left of the hair now nearly meet the lighter passages to the right of the head with most unfortunate and unoriginal consequences. Previously, the head emerged towards the viewer out of a warm dark enclosing space. Now, given the great lightening of the background around the head, the black of the hair can be read as a void in in a light coloured wall. One of the commonest signs of restoration injury to a face is present here: the contrasts between the blacks and the whites of the eyes are intensified regardless of the general system shading that had applied to the head. In the unrestored state, the most brilliant lights present were in the reflected lights of the dark irises, not in the whites of the eyes themselves. Another common loss that is seen here occurs in the tonal modelling around the eyes, which is used to establish the forms of what are essentially a pair of balls set in two sockets. The notorious carelessnes of restorers with anatomical features, is matched by an obvious indifference to shapes. The loss of the coherence of the former treatment of the hair is an almost universal restoration short-coming. Note the extent to which violence has been done to the former linked areas of hair in the subject’s side-burn and beard. Now the lighter mid-tones of the flesh at the cheek race through, breaching the hair like water out of a dam. In order to be complicit with such injuries one would have to subscribe to a fairy tale – one would have to believe that all the previously superior articulations of form, physiognomy, space, atmosphere and pyschological insight, were the unintended, undesigned, fortuitous benefits of some physical degeneration of a layer of varnish. In fact, one would have to subscribe to two fairy tales. One would have to believe that if the present varnish were to be left in place for long enough, it too would improve the drawing and modelling of the present state of the painting; that it would impart red-ness here, and green-ness there to stunning pictorial effect as it gradually turned into a yellowish brown covering.
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