Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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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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