By Elena King, Senior Conservator of Paintings
I recently had the pleasure of carrying out an unusual and unexpected treatment of a painting here at The Center. It was a wonderful example of how a routine conservation examination can reveal insight on a painting’s past, and the mystery surrounding its history.
When the painting first arrived at The Center for examination, we were puzzled by the odd composition; the center or focal point of the painting was empty, and the two groups of figures situated to the left and right did not appear to interact with each other. Also, the margins showed continuation of the composition, indicating that the painting may have been cut-down in the past.
Even before examination with UV lights or the microscope, it was obvious to the naked eye that the background of the painting had been heavily repainted in the past; the repaint was severely discolored and had turned a brown grey-green in tone.
(Above) Detail of repaint.
(Above) In raking light, you could see a fine network of raised craquelure throughout the paint layer, giving the surface a sandpaper-like appearance.
(Above) In this during-treatment photo, the discolored yellow varnish and discolored repaint has been removed from the right side, revealing the true age of the paint layer.
(Above) Later during varnish removal, a seam was revealed down the center of the painting. It became evident that the repaint was an effort to blend the color and imagery of the left and right sides. For example, the leaves of the palm tree left of the seam were added to complete the tree right of the seam, and the sky on the right had more clouds.
(Above) Detail along the seam, showing the differing colors of the sky, illustrating again that the two canvases were not originally together.
(Above) After cleaning and varnish removal were complete, losses and abrasions in the sky became apparent where the brownish red gesso layer showed through. The figures themselves were less abraded, and the paint layer in these areas comparatively well preserved.
(Above) Detail of seam
(Above) After removal of the varnish, repaint and fill materials, it was evident that the canvases were cut and joined evenly, indicating that it may be safe to separate the canvases.
Our client was presented with the option to proceed with treatment keeping the canvases together, or to separate them. After consulting with the client, and sharing and discussing our findings, the client decided to separate the canvases.
(Above) After separation, each canvas was lined to sized linen, and stretched over custom-built stretchers. Because the paintings were not perfectly square, areas along the edge were filled and textured to incorporate these areas. The remnants of the added palm leaves could not be fully removed without damaging the original paint layer beneath, and were left in place and inpainted.
Here, the final inpainting has been finished, and the painting treatment is complete.