The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators
The Cecilia Giménez affair has re-combusted. First off, the elderly would-be restorer had reduced the world to incapacitating laughter/disbelief at the bungled restoration of a painting of Christ in her local church, Santuario de Misericordia, in Borja, north-eastern Spain (Fig. 5). When Ms Giménez’s unauthorised restoration of “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man” caused the work to be dubbed “Ecce Mono – Behold the Monkey” the church threatened to sue. When restoration experts converged to advise on how or whether the damage might be undone, thousands of wags petitioned for the wreck to be left untouched for all to see for all time. It was all too much for the well-meaning amateur restorer who, greatly distressed, took to her bed.
Now the eighty-one years old is on the warpath. The church had become an overnight tourist attraction. Ryanair offered cut-price flights from the UK. An entrance charge was introduced that netted two thousand euros in the first four days…upon which the would-be restorer went to law seeking remuneration for having imbued the formerly disintegrating picture with talismanic, money-spinning powers. On September 21st the Times reported the explanation offered by one of her two lawyers: “She just wants [the church] to conform to the law. If this implies an economic compensation, she wants it to be for charitable purposes.” At this startling assertion of intellectual property rights, the church retained lawyers to defend its exclusive right to milk tourists. Giménez’s lawyers now reportedly say that while she demands no cut of the entrance charges, they are investigating possible copyright infringements of her creation with a view to pursuing payments from the many people now using the restored image to sell products. It already appears on T-shirts, cell phone covers, coffee mugs and wine labels.
With everyone in the world now aware that restorations really can damage art, attempts are underway to neutralise this professionally corrosive realisation. What seems to have caused most alarm is the recognition that although Giménez’s restoration was an extreme case it was not an aberration within the wider context of professional conservation practices. (See, for example, the grotesque repeated abuses of a Veronese face at the Louvre: “Restoration Tragedies” in the August 23 Sunday Telegraph and our August 30 post). Normally, publicity generated in connection with restorations is eagerly cultivated by the restorers and the supervising/funding authorities alike. The reputations of the former can be burnished and the revenue streams of the latter increased. However, the October issue of the Art Newspaper attempts to quarantine the Giménez affair by confining it within a discrete sphere of delinquent and destructive amateur restorations, which it then attacks on no supporting visual evidence – without even reproducing the offending Spanish restoration. By courtesy of the Art Newspaper, the incident is thus being pressed to serve as no more than a cautionary tale against failures to pay Proper Fees for Proper Professional Restorers (“Do-it-yourself? Just don’t…”):
“Although the likelihood of a well-meaning member of the public walking into a prominent museum like London’s National Gallery, paintbrush in hand, ready to work on a Titian, is slim, what about works in small private collections that remain largely out of the public eye but may one day end up in a museum or national archive? Unfortunately, these pieces are all too often subjected to misguided interventions.”
Dragging the National Gallery into this imbroglio is not helpful to the institution. Has the Art Newspaper forgotten that someone recently walked into the gallery, aerosol paint-can in hand and set about not one but two Poussins? Or, for that matter, that this happened at a time when warder numbers had been halved, prompting subsequent strikes and greatly intensified anxieties about possible thefts and further vandalism? As for Titian, the example can only seem injudicious (or provocative) given the notorious damage done to the artist by the National Gallery’s own professionally qualified restorers (see right). Of two things, we should all be clear. First, in the adulteration of art, amateurs are the also-rans. It is the performance of the professionals that should concern us most. Second, in appraising restorers’ performance we should ignore the restoration chaff of hype and professional apologias and look harder at the material and aesthetic results.
The Art Newspaper gives voice to the leading American academic restorer Joyce Hill Stoner who, while advising the Spanish church on its restoration calamity, takes open professional comfort at this artistic ill-wind: “In some ways, we were heartbroken, but on the other hand, it has resulted in a tremendous boost in advocacy for our profession.” Like many restorers, Prof. Stoner often beats this advocacy drum – elsewhere she has said: “We think public education and advocacy about our profession is one key. Even the Antiques Roadshow people often say, ‘Ah, Madame, if you had not cleaned this piece of early American furniture it would have been worth $70,000, now it is worth no more than $700.’” In the Art Newspaper she elaborates: “Amateur restorers have always been a problem…a geology professor… scrubbed away trees…People say they are treating their paintings and I tell them that’s like telling a doctor that they’re in the middle of removing their own appendix…artists are the parents, we are the paediatricians”.
This reaction to the incident raises the question of why restorers can so clearly see and so forcefully repudiate amateur errors while remaining silent on far more serious professional blunders on vastly more important artists like Titian (see right). Dubbed “picture rats” in the 19th century, restorers defensively rebranded themselves “conservators” and “picture surgeons” in the 20th century. While Prof. Stoner’s invocation of medical authority might be expected from one who is the director of a programme that converts restorers into doctors at the University of Delaware’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program, it is singularly ill-advised. If picture restorers bear any resemblance today to medical practitioners, it is to morticians who doll up artistic corpses or, fractionally more charitably, to the controversial branch of cosmetic surgery, where vain attempts to put back clocks and recover earlier states result in ghastly mishaps and the use of dangerously inappropriate materials. (For industrial-grade silicone breast implants, read synthetic resin picture varnishes. For “trout lips”, simply Google: “Veronese nose-jobs”.)
In 1999 Prof. Stoner, one of her profession’s more thoughtful exponents, gave an academic paper at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, in celebration of Women’s History Month and asking “Are There Great Women Art Conservators?” She sought permission to “muse for a bit about the practical side of the conservation of paintings” and characterised modern conservation as a “three-legged stool” comprised of art history (reading); chemistry (part reading, part doing); and studio art (doing). This year she elaborated in an interview:
“We call it ‘the three-legged stool’— you need a thorough grounding in art history or archaeology or library science (depending on your specialty); you need excellent hand skills—painting, drawing, sewing, sculpting, casting, etc. (depending on your specialty); and you need excellent training in organic and inorganic chemistry; you need to understand thoroughly the properties of materials making up the works of art AND the materials you might use in a treatment.”
At the time of the Great Women Conservators paper, Prof. Anatoly Alyoshin of the Repin Institute, St Petersburg (where restorers must spend many years training as artists), had recently criticised western practitioners for their inadequate “hands-on” artistic skills. Visiting Stoner’s alma mater, New York University’s restoration school, Prof. Alyoshin asked how a student lacking artistic abilities would be handled. No problem, he was told, “We give him a job connected with surveys or the theory of restoration”. But, on qualifying, would such a person be permitted to work in a museum as a restorer? “Probably he can”, was the answer.
Prof. Stoner’s own query carried the implicit sub-question: What makes a great practising conservator of either gender? She answered thus: “Let us suppose that I was the GREATEST conservator that EVER worked. What would it mean?” It would mean that she had “removed previous repaints, old discoloured varnishes and grime very sensitively”, and then filled in all the resulting lacunae and abrasions with “easily removable” fresh paint, taking care perfectly to match the “surface texture, gloss and colour” of the surviving paint. However, were she ever to achieve these goals, “no one would know that I had actually worked [and] my success would be measured by my invisibility”, which would provide no basis for “greatness, fame or immortality”. Additionally, she expressed concern that restorers might be thought mere “hand-maidens to the artist”.
Concerning the egotism of professional restorers, we have already seen how those at the National Gallery claim and have been granted a right to impose personal aesthetic readings on pictures. In France, we have challenged restorers who explicitly claim a right to determine how old paintings be “presented” today, as if they are texts or scores to be performed and not unique concrete historical objects (“LA RESTAURATION EST UNE INTERPRÉTATION”, letter, Beaux-Arts Magazine, No 203, April 2001). On questions of mechanical competence, it might be noted that Stoner’s own nominee as Great Woman Conservator was none other than Joyce Plesters, the then recently deceased former head of science at the National Gallery (London).
This seemed perverse. Plesters was not a restorer. Nor was she was an artist. She was a scientist who took a degree in art history while working at the National Gallery and was thus at best a “two-legged stool”. She mistook a large panel painting composed of three butterfly-keyed boards for a single giant one and half metres wide plank. On another panel she counted six boards when there are seven. She reported that Raphael’s Cartoons at the Victoria and Albert Museum had been mounted on backing sheets, when they had not. She believed a planed-down panel had been set into a sheet of block-board when it had been glued onto it. As head of science she failed to warn the Gallery’s restorers against their technically delinquent practice of ironing some the largest and most important canvases (such as Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) onto sheets of Sundeala board. As for her art historical judgements, she mocked the great scholar Ernst Gombrich for suggesting that Renaissance painters might, in emulation of Apelles, have toned down their own pictures with overall dark varnishes, when just such a painting was later identified within the National Gallery itself.
Prof. Stoner might more plausibly have nominated her fellow American picture restorer Caroline Keck (who held it important to accept an equal number of men and women into restoration lest the field lose power by becoming too “feminized’’). Although Keck, with her restorer husband Sheldon Keck, wrecked a major Phillips Collection Renoir when restoring it without authorisation (- like Cecilia Giménez), and also got badly mauled when disputing the British art historian John Richardson’s charge that restorers had committed crimes against cubist painting, she too was an ardent restoration propagandist, advising in 1993 that her profession should conduct its own PR:
“A group as large as ours has become must contain colleagues with the skills we need: run competitions for the best magazine and TV scripts, get communication going. The least each of us can do is make our treatment reports to owners lively and readable, attractive enough so these are left on the cocktail table to show off to guests…If we fail to assume responsibility for publicizing a fine image of ourselves, our work and the need for that work, no one else is likely to.”
Conservators are frequently urged by their professional “unions” to solicit professional hype. In the March 2008 ICON NEWS, the (female) head conservator of Westminster Abbey protested when “one of the big Sunday newspapers published what we thought was to be a nice piece on the forthcoming restoration of the Westminster Sedilia [but instead] sensationally claimed that the central heating had directly damaged the Coronation Chair” – even though another (female) conservator at the Abbey had precisely told The Art Newspaper that “The central heating is the main problem” (see ArtWatch UK Journal 23). The Guardian and the British Museum recently ran a joint course advising conservators on planting conservation friendly stories in the press and broadcast media. As for whether or not there any great women picture restorers, there are certainly professional awards aplenty for them. In 2003 Stoner herself was awarded the AIC University Products Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 she further received both the AIC Paintings Speciality Group Award “for outstanding contributions to the field of paintings conservation”, and the College Art Association and Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction in Scholarship and Conservation. In memory of her husband of sixty years, Caroline Keck set up The IIC Keck Award specifically for those judged to have contributed most “towards promoting public understanding and appreciation of the accomplishments of the conservation profession.”
For all this question-begging conservation propagandising, it could well be Cecilia Giménez who attains the “immortal fame” that eludes her more professionally respectable peers. However high their working esteem, from the minute professional restorers retire hungry successors circle to undo and redo their work – which is why such a premium is placed on “easily removable” repainting. At the same time and despite all the Good News stories, succeeding waves of restorers remain riven with personal rivalries, conflicting methodologies and incompatible philosophies. Insofar as it is available, historically documented evidence of restoration practices frequently testifies not to any methodological progress but, rather, to a succession of variously compounding errors and injuries. With each generation failing to establish a properly critical literature or even to show an interest in developing appropriate methods of aesthetic appraisal, restoration itself remains an insufficiently examined arena in which restorers may play around putting things on and taking things off as the fancy takes them.
In our previous post, The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, we examined the consequences of restorations for a number of the world’s most important artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese, Holbein, Velazquez and Vermeer) that had been carried out in some of the most important buildings or museums. Here, we examine (right) the restoration-induced alterations in a small section of the surface of a single Titian painting. We should add that these comparisons are made from high quality hard copies of photographs taken by the National Gallery for its own conservation records and very kindly made available to us by the Gallery (along with access to the conservation and scholarly records themselves). We are greatly indebted and believe that the following comparisons are made not only on the best possible and most reliable evidence available, but are also fairly presented with the least possible distortion. Some of the comparisons shown (Figs. 11 and 14) were made by overlapping two photographs of before and after restoration states which had then been scanned together so that the extent of the differences between the two states can be gauged with complete confidence.
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The shapes that Lucas engineered here have no basis in Titian, have no basis in the vocabularies and shared understanding of his cultural era. Lucas’s imposed innovations are arbitrary, without insight, unwarranted and vulgarly ahistorical.
Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration
ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.
Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.
On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.
During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).
That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.
A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.
Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.
Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)
Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”
Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.
The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:
Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”
What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”
The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”
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John Singer Sargent and how something ‘really filthy’ comes off in the conservation studio, time and time again
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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