Monday, July 26, 2010

Cleaning Paintings - Often A Surprise Even For Us

We just got into the lab a wonderful painting that was shown in the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. My goodness, this painting has been through tough times! We'll talk more about all the problems later but today, in our process of doing the estimate, we did cleaning tests to help us decide how willingly the varnish layers would dissolve and if that process would be dangerous to the original paint.

Even though we've been doing this since 1975, its often a surprising moment when we see the clean spot. The contrast is sometimes unexpected, perhaps like the beginning tests on the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel. We are careful to use solvents that won't attack the original paint. We also use, often, magnifiers to help us see more detail. Sometimes we need to test separately all the different colors to make sure one color will not dissolve unexpectedly while we are using a solvent. Get a look at these tests:

The "white" spots on this photo are where we have removed the dark brown varnish to reveal the original color of the dress. But here's something that you might not have noticed: See how the knee and the dress below the knee is kind of fuzzy or out of focus? Well, that's because its been repainted in previous restorations. The repainting was poorly done and WAY too abundantly. In fact, in the two cleaning tests where we tested to see if the repainting would come off, there was no damage below the retouching... we revealed original color in perfect condition.

You can imagine what a difference this cleaning will make: brighter colors, better depth of field and better contrast in the composition... a return to the original look and intent of the artist in 1903.

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