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Fine Art in the Principality of Monaco

Caring for Old Masters Paintings

A Simple Method to Safeguard Your Paintings


Tells you:

You Learn from Practical Examples:

Chapter Headings Include:
Materials artists have used from pre-historic times through the Renaissance. Practical examples on how to examine and handle old paintings safely. What is the safest environment to hang your painting and what conditions will cause it to degenerate.
Watching out for, and avoiding, forgeries. Caring for Old Master Painting: their preservation and conservation, contains a practical guide, in the seven major European languages, to help you learn the terms most commonly used in conservation.

What professional artists and restorers have said about Caring for Old Master Paintings

Extract from Caring for Old Master Paintings

Chapter 9: Conservation in the Twentieth Century
The period following the First World War saw a resurgence of interest in conservation. In France it went hand in hand with scientific research. Science could be used to study both the history and the technique of paintings

Dürer: the first artist to be x-rayed
Earlier research, such as that carried out by Sir Humphrey Davy and Chevreul, was in colours and pigments. The discovery of photography made available a new tool for the study of Old Master paintings. Some of the earliest photographic experiments of Niepce and Daguerre had been attempts in that direction. Photographers attempted, 1861, the first reconstruction of the Jan van Eyck Mystic Lamb . The triptych's wings were then in Brussels and Berlin while only the central panel remained in Ghent. The German physicist Rontgen who discovered X-radiation in 1895, quickly brought it into the service of the fine arts. His is the earliest known reference to the possible use of X-radiation in painting. In 1896 he discussed the absorption of the radiation by the lead white pigments contained in paintings. A year later, scientists X-rayed a painting by Albrecht Dürer and published a paper which proposed this method for the examination of works of art. From then onwards this type of research advanced in Germany and in France (under Ledoux-Lebart), and in Switzerland from the beginning of the First World War.

The end of the Second World War also prompted a revival of interest in the conservation of Old Master paintings. It stimulated interest in the research and development of new techniques and materials. This reawakening was a response to the damage which the war had inflicted on works of art through violence, theft, concealment and neglect. Later, natural disasters, such as the Florence floods of 1966 which destroyed Cimabue's 'Crucifix', gave an impetus to the study of new materials which could be employed in conservation. This developed a rapport between advanced scientific methods of analysis and new types of technology, both in the study of the nature of painting materials and their proper conservation.

How Nazi Germany stole van Eyck's 'The Mystic Lamb'
During the Second World War Government authorities hastily removed important paintings on timber, such as the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck, from their normal environments. They often damaged them as a result. This was because of poor storage conditions and frequently shifting the paintings from location to location.

Germany itself lost a lot of art treasures because of bombing. In the early part of the war, the government decided not to remove art treasures to places of safety. They hoped, by this policy, to create a feeling of normality and security in their citizens. When heavy bombing began in earnest, many custodians of the nation's treasures risked their lives and sometimes died, removing artworks, libraries and paintings from the path of destruction. Governments shipped many of these treasures east, often to Poland from where they have never returned. American soldiers on arrival in Germany also plundered other works of art which reappear from time to time. In January 1991 the German Government paid $2.75m to the heirs of a Texas ex-serviceman to get back the remains of the medieval artworks, the Quedlinburg treasures. Trustees found the looted artworks in the soldier's estate after his death.

In May 1940 the authorities boxed the 'Mystic Lamb' and stored it for safety in the crypt of Ghent cathedral. Some weeks later they sent it to the Chateau de Pau in south west France close to the Spanish frontier. It began to show signs of deterioration en route, such as splitting and flaking of the paint layer. Restorers escorting the painting attempted first aid by securing the flaking areas with fine tissue paper and adhesive.

In August 1942 German authorities removed it from France to Germany itself where it remained until the Summer of 1944 in the castle of Neuschwanstein. There, conservators again treated the recurring paint blisters. As the war advanced in Germany, they removed the Mystic Lamb for safety to the salt mines of Alt Aussee. The authorities stored in a low ceilinged room partitioned with rough timbers known as the Mineral Kabinett. (34) During its sojourn in the salt mines which lasted until May 1945 the painting began to suffer further degradation. The German restorer Karl Sieber worked on the large panel representing the figure of St John, which had split along its length. Allowing for its peregrinations during the war, the painting was in stable condition when the American Third Army recovered it. The conditions of the salt-mines possibly helped, being a constant 7 C. temperature and 70% relative humidity. From there they shipped the painting to the central collecting point for the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of SHAEF (Supreme headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in Munich. In August 1945 they sent it back, by air, to Brussels. After the painting's return to the Cathedral of Saint-Bavon in Ghent the authorities observed that the paint layer was still unstable and flaking, and the varnish layer degrading.

In 1950, Belgian decided to undertake a major conservation of the masterpiece. This aroused comment from prominent personalities in the Belgian academic world. They still had vivid memories of the London National Gallery cleaning controversy of 1947. So also were recollections of an earlier Dutch case involving Rembrandt's 'Night Watch'. They decided not to leave the decision of the methods and techniques to be adopted to the conservators and scientists who would carry out the operation. Instead, the Belgian government set up an international commission of art historians and members of ICOM (the International Council of Museums) to study the manner in which the conservation would be done. They were probably influenced by the principle that war (or here, conservation) is too serious to be left to the generals.

Van Eyck's technique revealed

They began a study of the history of the Mystic Lamb, with special reference to the materials used by the van Eyck. The commission also made a close examination of the physical condition of the painting. The purpose was, to determine the nature and the cause of the degradation, and to establish the pictorial aspects of the conservation they were about to commission. The research discovered that, apart from the restoration carried out in the Cinquecento (sixteenth-century), the artist himself had made alterations to the painting, including Adam's feet, while executing it. There were old repaintings along the back and around the head of the Lamb and the Lamb's ears, in the central panel. These came to light when the scholars examined the work under X-radiation analysis.

Bourdeau had restored the painting in 1818. Lorent worked on it in 1825 following a serious fire in the cathedral of Saint-Bavon in September 1822. The fire had damaged the masterpiece around the rear of the head of Christ. Donselaer also carried out restoration in 1858 and 1859. During the course of this restoration he repainted the blue mantle of the Virgin, previously damaged. He used Prussian blue and ultramarine, often in a tone different to that of the original and emphasized brown tints in some parts. Here he possibly did this with the intention of simulating age. Earlier studies (35) done on the van Eyck had also suggested that the painting was cut down in size at some time in the past.

The commission needed to consider those early repaintings concealing the artist's original colours and those repaintings which were contributing to the degradation of the masterpiece. The degradation of the varnish layer was causing some portions of the paint layer below it to flake off. There were also disharmonies evident in the total appearance of the painting. The lapis lazuli and the azurite of the sky which had come down to the present virtually unaltered contrasted noticeably with areas painted in copper resinates. These had darkened to a deep brown. To achieve a tonal balance the conservators' when they began working on the van Eyck, allowed ancient repaints to remain where they did not interfere with the original work. They also partially removed the ancient yellowed varnish layer.

A study of the pigments adopted by the artist revealed that he had built up the Virgin's robe with three layers of azurite bound in an oil medium. He had subsequently glazed this with lapis lazuli in a water soluble medium. The first layer had two sections of azurite in the form of a sandwich and this covered a section composed of azurite and lead white. Van Eyck had probably adopted this unusual technique as a low cost method of producing a medium blue tint. A study of the less critical sections of the painting by cross section analysis and by X-radiography showed that assistants had executed these portions.

Some of the degradation, noticed by Karl Sieber on the timber support in 1945, on the timber support, was still causing splitting and the separation of panels. Where the timber support was weakest, often in the softer sections of the timber, this continued to encourage paint losses. Professor Phillipot, the restorer responsible for the operation, treated them by impregnating the affected areas with a wax resin adhesive. He aided the operation using infra-red lamps set at 35-40 C. and applied the same treatment to the rear of the timber support. His intention here was to stabilize it in the uncertain ambiental conditions of the cathedral of Saint-Bavon. Here, without benefit of air conditioning, the temperature and relative humidity varied greatly depending on the season and the time of day. The international commission advanced ideas and suggestions which the conservators adopted during this restoration. These recommendations became the model and then the standard approach used in later museum conservation.

(34) The central region of Germany is rich in salt mines. These were planned as repositories for art works from the beginning of World War II. It was thought they would, unlike border zones, be less likely to became war risks. The region became part of the German Democratic Republic with the ending of the war. This slowed up the repatriation of art treasures, including archives, libraries and museum objects as well as paintings.

(35) Hermann Beenken, in The Ghent van Eych re-examined, The Burlington Magazine, Vol LXIII (1933) pp. 64-7

Hardback - 148 pages, format 27 x 22 cms (10 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches) Irish Academic Press, ISBN English 0-7165-2531-3. North American Distribution; International Specialized Book Services, Portland, Oregon.

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