Art has the incredible ability to take hold of you, transfix you, and then transport you into another state of mind. That’s exactly what happens to one of our clients when he gazes at “The Trinity with the Virgin and Two Donors,” a painting attributed by one expert to Marten de Vos, a Flemish history painter and portraitist of the late 16th century.
Our client first saw the painting while flipping through Christie’s Auction Catalog in December 2006. He said he had never seen anything like it. Though the painting was attributed to de Vos, it reminded our client of one of his favorite artists, Jacopo Tintoretto, due to the darkness of the composition and the stark variations in value. Interestingly, according to Flemish painter and art historian, Karel van Mander, de Vos had visited Venice and Rome and is thought to have studied with Tintoretto.
Once the painting was bought and brought home, our client was able to examine the work more closely. He noticed that the painting, which was executed on a wood panel, was badly warped. Additionally, the work came unframed, which proved to be a great challenge to him. He purchased a frame, but wasn’t happy with it. Something was missing.
Our client realized that the painting didn’t have the same vividness it originally had. He predicted that the whites of the robes and banner had lost their brightness over time, and that the painting needed to be cleaned to bring out the contrast he knew was there. Having worked with us before, he sent the painting to us, hoping we could unveil the original palette.
After initial photography and documentation, the painting was taken out of its frame to be examined. Our conservators noted that the painting was created with thinly painted oil on a solid wood panel. The oil paint appeared to have become even more translucent over the years revealing the horizontal grain of the panel on the front of the painting. The panel had undergone many forms of damage and treatment through the years. There was evidence that the panel had once been nailed and glued at the corners, and there was a long crack in the lower right corner. Additionally, the panel was convexly warped and had evidence of old insect damage.
Unfortunately, the wood panel was not the only part of the painting that showed damage and previous treatment campaigns. The paint layer was flaking throughout the work, especially in a 5-inch wide section in the center of the composition. Our conservators also noted areas of previous repaint over the majority of the painting. The repaint was particularly heavy in the clouds and landscape around the figures and along the edges. The repaint had aged, and no longer matched the rest of the painting. There was a thin layer of natural satin varnish on the work, which had also discolored. Underneath the satin varnish also appeared to be remnants of an older varnish and a layer of embedded surface grime. On the back of the painting, there were various inscriptions and labels, giving a small glimpse into the painting’s history.
The first steps to conserving the painting were to consolidate the flaking paint and remove the layers of old varnish and grime. Both the first and second layer of varnish were removed, to the extent safely possible, then the surface was cleaned of grime using appropriate solvents. After this first step, we sent pictures of the painting’s progress to our client, who was pleasantly surprised. The varnish removal and cleaning had brightened the painting significantly, and had restored the contrast in colors and shading the client suspected was underneath, as well as revealing remnants of delicate gilding in the figures’ robes. Because of this, the client decided not to have any further work done on the painting. “Contrast is what it needed,” he told us, “the discolored varnish and grime were holding it back.”
Our client did, however, elect to place the painting in a new frame, which he let his daughter pick out. She chose a beautiful gold leaf frame, with minimal detail so as not to distract from the work itself. Our Custom Framing and Fabrication Department customized the shape of the frame’s rabbet (the inner lip of the frame) in order to support the curvature of the warped panel. They also used flexible spring clips on the back, which eases the pressure on the panel, and attached an acid-free Coroplast backing board to provide additional protection. On the backing board, they attached encapsulated photos of areas of the back of the painting that had any writing or notation.
“The painting is hung where it was before, and it looks amazing. It is completely renewed.” Our client elected the minimal treatment option and is totally satisfied with the result. To him, the areas of paint loss, the cracks, general imperfections “don’t detract from the image. Like scars on a face, they give character.”
He regularly finds himself staring at the work lost in thought. He hopes that it will stay in his family for generations to come.