Artwatch UK

John Singer Sargent and how something ‘really filthy’ comes off in the conservation studio, time and time again

April 20th 2011

When accused of damaging old master paintings picture restorers have often retorted: “What you think is my injury to this painting is an earlier restorer’s injury that my cleaning has exposed”. Not a brilliant line, perhaps, but, in the absence of photographic records, it has provided a plausible-sounding defence against artists’ technically-informed criticisms. (For Pietro Annigoni’s classic denunciation of cleanings at the National Gallery, see the appendix below.) However, as more and more modern paintings fall under the swab and the scalpel, the “Not me, guv.” defence can evaporate because with such pictures there are almost always photographic records of previous treatments and, often, of the original state itself. In c. 1885, John Singer Sargent’s finished and framed portrait Madame X was photographed next to the artist in his studio. His similarly seminal 1882 group portrait The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit was recorded in a 1903 photograph when it was only 21 years old and unlikely to have been cleaned and/or lined. Here, the painter Gareth Hawker discusses seemingly irrefutable photographic evidence of restoration injuries that that Velazquez-inspired portrait group incurred in 1983 at the Boston Museum of Art. It is ironic that Sargent’s devoted copy/study of Velazquez’s Las Meninas (shown below) should itself now testify to the horrendous restoration-induced losses that that great work subsequently suffered.

Gareth Hawker writes:

I first saw this painting when it was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1979. The paint exhibited the freshness of touch which is characteristic of all Sargent’s work, and also a certain solidity and firmness, but by the time I saw the picture again, at the Tate in 1998, the paint looked thin, strained, and slippery. I passed by the picture quickly, not wanting the sight of its present state to confuse the memories I had of its earlier state.

A week ago I came across the painting again, this time as a reproduction on the website of the Boston Museum of Fine Art, which has owned the painting since 1919. Those photographs brought back my conflicting memories. (See fig. 5.) With remarkable candour, the Museum shows close-ups of a part of the painting before and after a cleaning. The close-ups record exactly those changes which had so disturbed me in real life. They are attached here so that the reader may have an opportunity to make his own assessment of the degree to which the painting has been changed. (See figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4.) It seems clear that some of Sargent’s paint has been taken off. If so, how could this have come about? Perhaps the conservator had made some unwarranted assumptions about Sargent’s technique?

Sargent is famous as an exponent of the alla prima, or premier coup method of painting. The idea is to start and finish the picture while the paint is still wet – to finish ‘at the first blow’. There is no build-up of paint layers as there might be with, say, a typical Rembrandt. If the painter makes a mistake he will wipe off the paint, or scrape it off, and start afresh. Sargent’s portrait of Vernon Lee (fig. 6) provides a perfect example of this approach. However, as Bernard Dunstan describes so well in his Painting Methods of the Impressionists, Sargent was by no means rigidly devoted to this approach. The attentive student who examines a range of Sargent’s paintings will find many areas where Sargent has allowed paint to dry and has then painted on top.

In fact adhering exclusively to the the alla prima method, while painting a picture as large as the portrait of the Boit girls, would have presented enormous difficulties. In order to cover such a large area ‘at one blow’ one would have to keep the paint wet for many days. Alternatively one might proceed by finishing a section at a time, as with a fresco, but then the completed picture would be unlikely to balance tonally. Following either of these variations of the alla prima method would be extremely problematic, but, even if the painting were to develop perfectly along these lines, the paint would tend to look thin and skimpy, especially if applied with Sargent’s habitual finesse. In a small portrait, such as the one of Vernon Lee, which measures only about 0.7M x 0.65M, thin paint can look perfectly satisfactory. Arguably it can even add to the freshness of the result, but if the same paint quality were to be carried over a large area, such as the 2M x 2M of the Boit portrait, it would start to look thin and meagre. Realising this, Sargent no doubt chose to adopt an approach which would produce a more substantial result than could be expected from painting alla prima.

Sargent was very familiar with such an alternative approach. He had studied Velazquez in Madrid, and made an oil sketch of Las Meninas (see figs. 7, 8, 9, & 10). He would no doubt have observed that Velazquez had begun by painting a representation of the room. It was only later, after allowing this paint to dry, that Velazquez placed his figures on top. (X-rays now confirm this observation.) It is perhaps understandable that Sargent should have proceeded to work on his own very similar subject with similar deliberation.

Consider, for example, the strokes of the pinafore of the girl at our left (fig. 11). They are applied over a dark ground. In this part of the painting the ground is provided by the base colour of the painted wall, not by the white canvas priming which would be typical of Sargent’s alla prima work.

The greatest danger, when departing from the alla prima approach, is that one will be tempted to correct a dry patch of dark paint by covering it with another patch of dark paint, paint of very nearly the same colour. As painters know only too well, dark paint painted on dark paint almost invariably looks dead, dull, and lifeless. Dark paint needs a lighter paint underneath in order to reflect light through it and give it life. This is one reason why house-painters use a brown or grey undercoat when painting a black door.

Similarly Sargent would have painted his initial lay-in (i.e. the big areas of undercoat) in paint which was, in some parts, lighter than the finish he had in mind. It would also have been advantageous to paint this layer in a slightly stronger or brighter colour, so that it would enliven the darker, duller paint which was to come on top. Having made such a preparation Sargent would then have been able to paint with great freedom directly onto the dry paint (as if painting alla prima) knowing that the brighter undercoat would be there to support his colour and give it substance. The result would have had great apparent spontaneity, at the same time as being founded on a solid technical basis. This method would allow Sargent to repeatedly scrape off and repaint areas as he might find necessary in the course of the paintings development.

Years later, when conservation work was considered desirable, a conservator might wipe off darkened varnish. If he then chanced to continue wiping he would find that more dark material would come off, and a paint-layer of a brighter, stronger colour would be revealed. This might seem to him to be the single layer one might expect of a painting made following the alla prima method. Believing that Sargent would have painted only in one layer, the conservator might reason that the dark material he was removing must be dirt, not paint. He might continue to remove it across large areas of the picture. Sargent’s preparatory layer would then emerge, making the cleaned areas appear brighter, stronger and flatter than they had done before. The conservator might take this to be an indication that he had done his job well. He would, perhaps, suppose that Sargent’s single layer had been revealed.

In case this might seem to the reader to be a wild flight of fancy, perhaps I might introduce a personal anecdote: I remember how one of my own paintings suffered in exactly this way. I had left it at a dealer’s in readiness for an exhibition. We had agreed that he would get one of his conservators to give it a coat of varnish. A couple of weeks later he phoned to say his conservators had found some ‘thick, grungy muck’ on the painting and, as a favour to me, had tried to take it off. (Note, though fully qualified in conservation, they had not thought to telephone me first). He said, “someone had put something really filthy on your painting and in the end we had to use a scalpel to get it off. Then, underneath, we revealed some lovely yellow paint.” I have no idea who he thought that ‘someone’ might have been. The painting had never been out of my hands. It was I, the painter, who had put that ‘muck’ on. I had applied it in order to dull down the yellow, which, in turn, I had painted too bright, on purpose, in preparation for my final touches… If this could happen in good faith when the painter was only a phone call away, how much more likely is it to happen when the painter is dead?!

This is what seems to have happened here with the Sargent. It looks as if his carefully prepared finish has been removed by a well-qualified restorer carrying out his work according to the standards of his profession. It appears that in several places the final strokes of Sargent have been removed: we seem to be looking at Sargent’s preparatory work instead. This might explain why the painting now looks so comparatively feeble.


Letter from Pietro Annigoni published in the Times, July 14th 1956.

“Sir, – A few days ago, at the National Gallery, I noticed once more the ever-increasing number of masterpieces which have been ruined by excessive cleaning. This procedure, which in former times created at Munich a veritable scandal and at the same time a reaction as vigorous as it was beneficial, recommenced at the close of the Second World War not only in England but Italy, France, Germany – everywhere, and was received, alas! with almost total indifference.

“The war did not destroy a greater number of works of art. Such is the power of a group of individuals, nowhere numerous, whose proceedings may be compared to the work of germs disseminating a new and terrible disease. I do not doubt the meticulous care employed by these renovators, nor their technical skill, but I am terrified by the contemplation of these qualities in such hands as theirs. The atrocious results reveal an incredible absence of sensibility. We find no trace of the intuition so necessary to the understanding of the technical stages employed by artists in different pictorial creations, which cannot possibly be restored by chemical means. The most essential part of the completion of a picture by the old masters was comprised in light touches, and above all in the use of innumerable glazes, either in the details or in the general effects – glazes often mixed even in the final layers of varnish. Now, I do not say that one should not clean off crusts of dirt, and sometimes even recent coats of varnish, coarsely applied and dangerous, but I maintain that to proceed further than that, and to pretend to remount the past years, separating one layer from another, till one arrives at what is mistakenly supposed to be the original state of the work, is to commit a crime, not of sensibility alone but of enormous presumption.

“What is interesting in these masterpieces, now in mortal danger, is the surface as the master left it, aged alas! as all things age, but with the magic of those glazes preserved, and with those final accents which confer unity, balance, atmosphere, expression – in fact all the most important and moving qualities in a work of art. But after these terrible cleanings little of all this remains. No sooner, in fact, is the victim in the hands of these ‘infallible’ destroyers than they discover everywhere the alterations due at different times, to the evil practices of former destructive ‘infallibles.’ Thus ravage is added to ravage in a vain attempt to restore youth to the paintings at any price.

“Falling upon their victim, they commence work on one corner, and soon proclaim a ‘miracle’; for, behold, brilliant colours begin to appear. Unfortunately what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work. But the cleaners know nothing of this, perceive nothing, and continue to clean until the picture appears to them, in their ignorance, quite new and shining. Some parts of the picture painted in thickly applied colour will have held firm; other parts (and these always the most numerous) which depended on the glazes, of infinitesimal fineness, will have disappeared; the work of art will have been mortally wounded.

“Is it possible that those responsible for these injuries do not perceive them, do not understand what they have done? Clearly it is possible; for they are proud of their crimes and often group the paintings they have murdered in special galleries to show their triumphs to the public – a public for whose opinion, in any case, they care nothing. For myself, I cannot express all the sorrow and bitterness I feel in the presence of these evidences of a decadence which strives to anticipate the destruction of civilization itself by the atomic bomb. How long will these ravages in the domain of art and culture continue unrestrained and unpunished? The damage they have done is already enormous.”

Gareth Hawker is ArtWatch UK’s picture analyst.

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Fig. 1, above: The feet of the girl at our left on Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Barley Boit, seen before and after cleaning in 1982. The shadow which the girl casts on the floor has been drastically reduced, and the gradation of tone on the floor and the wall has been diminished. The detail of the edge where the wall meets the floor has been removed.
Fig. 2, above: The girl at our left, before cleaning, shown next to the same part of the painting after cleaning. The reader may notice many differences.
Fig. 3, above: The girl at our left, before cleaning. By alternating this image with the following one in rapid succession, in the Picasa slide-show, the reader may find it easier to spot the many differences between them.
Fig. 4, above: The girl at our left, after cleaning.
Fig. 5, above: The current Boston website photograph (retrieved in 2011) of Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, oil on canvas painted in 1882. Although the website provides a photograph of the two details before treatment shown above, it does not, unfortunately, provide a photograph of the whole painting immediately before treatment.
Fig. 6, above: Sargent’s portrait of Vernon Lee. This is an example of painting alla prima. The canvas shows through the paint in a way which adds freshness and spontaneity but which would be liable to appear thin and feeble if continued over a larger area.
Fig. 7, above: Velazquez’s Las Meninas (from the Prado’s website) which Sargent copied in a smaller oil study. When he painted the Boit portrait, Sargent employed a similar technique to the one Velazquez used here.
Fig. 8, above: Sargent’s copy (left) of Velazquez’s Las Meninas (right).
Fig. 9, above: Sargent’s c. 1887 copy (oil on canvas, 39.5 x 44.5 inches, whereabouts unknown) of Las Meninas
Fig. 10, above: The Boit daughters and Las Meninas together at the Prado in March 2010.
Fig. 11, above: The pinafore of the girl at our left. Here the orange brown ground shows through the fresh brush-strokes which make up the white pinafore. This shows Sargent departing from a strict application of the alla prima method. The ground here is formed by the colour of the first layer of paint which he used to represent the wall. He used a different colour to paint the first layer of the floor. This is different from painting alla prima, where the ground is of only one colour all over the canvas, usually white or off-white, but sometimes grey, brown or other colours.
Fig. 12, above: Pietro Annigoni’s 1956 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II
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