JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 1 (pp. 73 to 87)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 1 (pp. 73 to 87)

SOME PICTURE CLEANING CONTROVERSIES: PAST AND PRESENT∗∗This paper constituting the George L. Stout Memorial Lecture was presented at the AIC Annual Meeting, Baltimore, 1983. It was prepared for delivery conjointly with 38 color slides, presenting as many images as time allowed to feature 24 paintings touched by controversy. The slides were projected as the pictures appear today, simultaneously with a reading of complaints and replies of participants in the controversies. Only those treated in recent times permitted comparison of their appearance before and after cleaning. For publication in the Journal of the American Institute of Conservation numerous revisions were necessary and considerably fewer illustrations could be used. The paper is published here without individual footnote references to sources, but a bibliographical listing of the texts consulted in preparing the lecture is appended.

Sheldon Keck

ABSTRACT—Controversies dating from antiquity to the present over the cleaning of oil paintings in major museums in Europe and the United States are described, and their basis discussed.

SOME VIEWERS, conditioned by pleasant memories of a painting's earlier appearance, are surprised, even shocked, when they see it freed of grime and discolored varnish. In fact some are outraged and vehemently critical of what they call “flaying” of the painting. Other viewers are pleased by the freshness of the colors, the expanded scale of values and the improved visibility of nuances and details. This conflict of opinion is an ongoing conceptual controversy which started centuries ago.

I cite a complaint from antiquity, recorded by Pliny the Elder: a painting representing a tragic actor and a boy by the Greek artist, Aristiedes of Thebes, which hung in the Temple of Apollo at Rome, “was,” in Pliny's words, “ruined through the ignorance of the painter to whom Marcus Junius as Praetor, entrusted it to be cleaned before the Games of Apollo.” If the painting was by Aristiedes, it was more than 300 years old at the time. I call your attention to the verb “ruined,” a term frequently echoed in many subsequent controversies.

Complaints of damage to works of art allegedly resulting from restoration by later artists, have been recorded by writers and art historians through the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. In Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, artists were, as in antiquity, normally called upon to repair, clean and restore aged or damaged paintings. The specialist who devotes a career to the care and renovation of works of art seems first to appear in the 18th century. This so-called “restorer” by no means replaced the artist/restorer who continued to restore and to some extent does today.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the artist, Carlo Maratta, was appointed superintendent of the Pope's Chambers and Halls and charged with the cleaning of Raphael's frescos, the “School of Athens,” “the Disputa,” and others which had been injured and scratched with Lutheran graffitti by German troops during the sack of Rome in 1527. By the mid 17th century the walls, as reported by Bellori, were covered with dust which had formed a hard crust on the frescos. Certain heads were virtually invisible. But so vocal was the opposition to the cleaning of the frescos that no work could be started till 1702. To protect Maratta from the clamor that was raised all over Rome, Pope Clement XI regularly visited the stanza where he was working to signify papal approval of what was being done. “Otherwise,” in Maratta's words, “these miracles of our profession [the frescos] would have perished miserably because of past neglect and the superstition of ignorant connoisseurs.”

In the sad story of the progressive decay of Leonardo's “Last Supper” in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazia, Milan, this mural was already considered by Vasari in 1566 to be “ruined”; by Lomazzo in 1584, “a total ruin”; and by Armenini in 1586 “half ruined”—all in less than a century after its completion in 1497. Twice during the 18th century, artists were hired to restore the “Last Supper” to its former beauty. In 1726, an inferior artist, Michelangelo Bellotti, is said to have employed so much vigor in his restoration that he left nothing untouched but the sky, after which he covered the mural with an oil varnish. Less than fifty years later in 1770, another painter, Giuseppe Mazza, a prot�g� of the Governor of Milan, continued the destruction begun by Bellotti. He laid a neutral color over the entire surface and repainted the whole picture with the exception of the heads of Matthew, Thadeus and Simon, saved by public indignation. Mrs. Charles Heaton reports in her opus on Leonardo da Vinci (1874): “The prior of the cloister who had authorized it, was banished to another convent in expiation of this vandalism.”

Under the new French Republic, a first Museum Commission was established in 1792 to superintend the care and restoration of the public collections confiscated from royal palaces, churches and houses of �migr�s.emigr�s. The Commission's control of the restoration work performed under contract by twelve or more artist/restorers was lax. The Commission was also under pressure to prepare in the Galeries du Louvre a central Museum, scheduled to be opened by July 1793. Between September 1792 and September 1793 some 200 paintings, many of them masterpieces, were cleaned and restored by these artist/restorers. Statements of materials and procedures employed by the contracting artists which accompanied their bills for reimbursement and services are still extant. There is no doubt that the contents were frightening to the uniniated and to some connoisseurs as well. Among the paintings were Rubens' “Landing of Marie de Medici” and his “Kermesse,” restored by Citizen Regnaud, painter; Poussin's “Diogenes” and “Woman taken in Adultery,” both restored by Martin LaPorte, painter; Correggio's “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine” cleaned also by LaPorte; and Correggio's “Jupiter and Antiope.”

As the restoration work progressed during that year, the restorer, Jean Michel Picault, son of Robert Picault famed for his transfers, denounced the work of the contracting artists, claiming they were unqualified and, through ignorance, were doing untold damage to precious pictures. He alleged that three of the artists were taking their apprenticeships in restoring paintings of inestimable value. He was joined in his attack by J.S.P. LeBrun, an art dealer and connoisseur, who requested the Minister of the Interior to suspend the restoration work and appoint a new commission. The painter, Jacques Louis David, accused the Commission of incompetence, declaring it allowed fatal damage to monuments of art. Of Correggio's “Antiope” he wrote: “the glazes and halftones, in a word all that specially characterizes Correggio, have disappeared.”

The Mus�e du Louvre opened its doors on the 11 November 1793, four months behind schedule. The Commission was dissolved on 16 January 1794. It was replaced by another, the Temporary Commission of Fine Arts, which functioned until 1795 giving way to the Council for Conservation of objects of arts and science. By 1796, the authorities conceived the idea of exhibiting some of the paintings half-cleaned to show how much was gained by the process of cleaning. This policy, though not long continued, together with the acceptance of reforms promoted by LeBrun, Picault, and David, satisfactorily put an end to the controversy.

About the middle of the 19th century, a flurry of lengthy controversies arose almost simultaneously in England, France and Bavaria. Artists, connoisseurs, art dealers, collectors and amateurs of art found themselves embroiled in an artistic ideological debate on the aging of paintings. Toward the end of the 17th century a theory had emerged and continued to gain currency through the 18th, that “Time” improved and mellowed paintings, increasing their beauty, harmony, subtlety and mystery. Perhaps the rise of romanticism in the 19th century accounts for the theory's wide acceptance as the taste of that period as well. To quote Redgrave in A Century of British Painters, 1866: “Connoisseurs believed that pictures, like coins, obtained a patina from age that mellowed their tone, and made them more valuable than in the state they left the painter's easel.” Sir George Beaumont, a British artist who died in 1827, concisely states: “A good painting, like a good violin, should be brown.” That this theory was not universally accepted by artists and connoisseurs alike contributed to controversies.

In 1844, just twenty years after the founding of the National Gallery, London, its newly appointed Keeper, Charles Eastlake R.A., a painter and scholar of materials and techniques, initiated a policy of picture cleaning. His cleaner and restorer at the Gallery was John Seguier, employed there since 1824. Seguier had also treated the collection even before its acquisition by the nation. His previous duties had included coating the paintings with “gallery varnish,” a solution of mastic resin in boiled linseed oil, and periodically oiling them with linseed oil as they became dull or dried out. It is quite likely that by 1844 all of the pictures in the collection had acquired the mellow brown patina so much admired by Sir George Beaumont. Under Eastlake's new policy, a number of paintings were cleaned annually during the six-weeks summer period when the Gallery was closed to the public. Starting in 1846 a controversy, which shook the National Gallery, raged intermittently until 1853, when the House of Commons appointed a Select Committee to inquire into the constitution and administration of the Gallery. From the letters to the press, from the records of the Select Committee's investigation and final report, I have selected excerpts of complaints and defenses relating to five of the paintings cleaned during that period. (All of these have been cleaned again since the 1846–1853 controversy.)

Rubens, “Peace and War” (oil on canvas, 78 � 116 inches, relined) cleaned by John Seguier, 1846.

Complaint: J. Morris Moore (using the pseudonym “Verax”) in his letter to The Times, 29 Oct., 1846 J. Morris Moore, an artist and an art dealer, played a leading role in this controversy.

“To my great surprise and indignation I found the finest Rubens we possess, viz: Peace and War … completely flayed. I know no more appropriate word to designate the shameful manner in which this splendid work has been treated during the last holidays. The Peace and War, so pre-eminently rich and harmonious in colour, is now almost as remarkably crude and discordant. With characteristic ignorance the fine rich glazings have been scoured off without the slightest regard to, or perception of proportion, so we now have the distant objects most offensively confusing themselves with those in the foreground.”

Comment: Charles Eastlake, Keeper of the Collection, reporting to the Trustees.

“The Rubens may be said to have been long buried under repeated coats of yellowed and soiled varnish. It was found that these could be removed with perfect safety as the surface of the picture had that extreme hardness which the works of this master, above all others, often possess.”

Titian, “Bacchus and Ariadne” (oil on canvas, 56″ � 84″, relined) cleaned by John Seguier, 1846. (Fig. 1)

Complaint: J. Morris Moore in second letter to The Times, 19 Nov. 1846.

Fig. 1. Titian, Bacchus and Adriadne, National Gallery of Art, London.

“The picture has been scraped raw in some parts and repainted in others … the former process especially, has the effect of altering the apparent position of some of the objects. This ought to be the end of a series of barbarisms.”

Defense: John Ruskin.

Although critical of the treatment of Rubens' “Peace and War,” felt that the “Bacchus and Ariadne” had “escaped scot free” from damage. The Select Committee later agreed that: “discoloured and decayed varnish had been removed as far as was prudent.”

Rubens, “Judgment of Paris” (oil on panel, 47″ � 63�″) cleaned by Thomas Boden Brown, restorer, filled where required and inpainted by Charles Eastlake, after purchase in 1844.

Defense: in a letter signed with the initials A.G. to The Times, 4 Jan. 1847.

“The Judgment of Paris” acquired last year was cleaned before it was hung up in the Gallery. Those who have seen it in the auction room when it was purchased were sensible of the judicious manner in which its beauties were brought to light before it was exhibited to the public. The picture was painted on panel and depends much on glazing for its effects.”

Complaint: J. Morris Moore, letter to The Times, 18 Jan 1847.

“During the vacation preceding the last, The Judgment of Paris by Rubens, purchased at the enormous sacrifice of �4,200, was considerably injured; its vigor and vivacity having been reduced to smooth and monotonous insipidity by the scouring, which has the effect of enervating those last masterly touches which gave point and reality to the whole.”

Canaletto, “Stonemason's Yard” (oil on canvas) cleaned by John Seguier, 1852.

Complaint: J. Morris Moore, Testimony at a hearing of the Select Committee.

“That picture has been literally flayed; the transparent colour on the shadowed side of the beams nailed diagonally on the mason's shed to give it support, has been rubbed off. … The like may be said of the fragments in the mason's yard; the effacement of the half-tints and shadows has reduced them to unmeaning reliefless surfaces, similar in effect to the detached portions of a theatrical scene. … This picture may be quoted as a sad instance of the passion now so fatally prevalent for reducing old pictures to as white an appearance as possible. The various white objects in it have been scoured, utterly regardless of the position in which they are placed, to an almost uniform whiteness. The consequence is that near and distant objects are jumbled together in unmeaning confusion, and that linear perspective is forced into direct antagonism with the aerial. I will here remark, that the chalky, veiled appearance of the immediate foreground is owing to the solvent having disturbed some portion of the body pigment. The sky has a smudged appearance, such as I know from experience, to be the result of an improper action of some strong solvent. There is an absence of that freshness and sharpness of execution which, until the late cleaning, characterized this painting.”

Claude Lorrain, “The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba” (oil on canvas, 59″ � 79″, relined) cleaned by John Seguier, 1852. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. Claude Lorrain, The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, National Gallery of Art, London.

Complaint: J. Morris Moore, Testimony at a hearing of the Select Committee.

“I see that the general effect of the picture is injured, and altogether fainter … the water instead of being any longer in perspective is now perpendicular. … They have scoured the glazing off entirely … the sky has now a flat and metallic appearance … the gradation of the picture is destroyed. … There is not the same contrast of light and shade that there was … TIME can never restore this; a uniform lowering of the picture will not restore the gradation; the aerial perspective will remain false as it now is …”

In 1853 the Select Committee completed its investigation of the administration, preservation and restoration at the Gallery and submitted to the House of Commons a report of over 1,000 pages including the evidence extracted from leading artists, restorers, critics, dealers and connoisseurs. It noted the widely conflicting nature of opinions on procedures and results of cleaning. It condemned the use of “Gallery Varnish.” It recommended administrative changes at the Gallery and suggested a number of formalities with regard to cleaning pictures. As a result Eastlake, who had resigned as Keeper in 1847 and who was now Sir Charles Eastlake, President of the Royal Academy, was elevated in 1855 to the new position of Director of the National Gallery.

Almost concurrently with the National Gallery controversy, Frederic Villot, curator of paintings at the Louvre, instituted in 1848 a program to remove the “brown soup” or “museum gravy” obscuring many of its paintings, tonings and varnishes applied over the years by contract artist/restorers. An artist and former pupil of Eugene Delacroix, Villot in addition himself cleaned and restored paintings. After he had directed and participated in the removal of brown varnish from a number of pictures, whispers of scandal began to be heard. Eventually, he became the butt of violent and much publicized protests from amateurs, connoisseurs and artists. In 1853, Villot's friend and former teacher Delacroix declared he regretted the restorations of the pictures at the Louvre, particularly that of the “great Veronese [Marriage at Cana] which the unfortunate Villot has killed with his attentions.” The Count de Viel-Chastel charged that the Louvre's Claude Lorrain “Village Fete” had been ruined by Godefroy, Villot's favorite restorer. He also condemned Godefroy's restoration of Van Dyck's equestrian portrait of Francois Moncade, Marquis of Aytona.

Villot forcefully defended his actions against his critics whom he considered to have not the foggiest concept of the problems one faces in the work. He drew attention to his thirty years experience. He emphasized the uniqueness of each painting. He declared that only one definite statement can be made: the cleaning of the painting should be compatible with it; all activities should be restricted to the bare necessities. In other words, there must be total respect for the work of the creative artist. “Cleaning the Rubens paintings” in the Medici Gallery, Villot argued “had produced a large number of conversions among the most fanatic partisans of yellow and brown … there are those who cannot appreciate paintings until these no longer resemble what they were when their artists finished them … let such people provide themselves with glasses tinted according to their taste.”

But in May 1860 the Academy of Fine Arts censured him for his treatment of the Louvre's “St. Michael” by Raphael. As Mme. Emile-Male has observed, Villot, overwhelmed by his own actions counter to the taste of the times, was obliged to resign in 1860 as curator of paintings. He was promoted to a purely administrative post as Secretary of the Louvre.

In Munich in 1861, a journalist, F. Pecht, published violent protests against the cleaning of old paintings at the Pinakothek. As a result of his charges, a commission of inquiry was instituted, including among its members a medical hygienist, Dr. Max von Pettenkofer. He proposed a method which was considered a sensational panacea, which he patented in 1863 and later published. His method consisted of exposing the surface of a painting to vapors of ethyl alcohol which returned the varnish to a gel, rejoining cracks and regaining the smooth continuous surface it had when first applied. No varnish was removed and its yellow or brown tone remained intact. The regenerated varnish had a tendency to revert in a few years to its former deteriorated state. To prolong the efficacy of the process and to protect the varnish from excessive brittleness Pettenkofer recommended applications of the oleo-resin copaiva balsam before or after exposure to the vapors.

Pettenkofer's invention virtually put an end to serious cleaning controversies well into the 20th century. It was widely employed on the continent and also in England. The National Gallery, for instance, successfully used the process on sixteen paintings in 1864. While Eastlake found merit in its safety, he was not without reservations: “it should,” he wrote, “at the same time be borne in mind that, while the operations clears, it does not pretend to clean.” The result of its use on the “Night Watch” in 1889 was described by Durand-Greville in the Gazette de Beaux Arts as follows: “It is as if six weeks ago the Night Watch had an effect of sunlight which was hidden from us by a brown glass, dull and very dirty; and now it has the effect of sunlight seen by us through a glass much less brown, less dull and perfectly transparent.”

In 1936 a rather violent and voluminous controversy erupted at London over the National Gallery's cleaning of Velazquez' full length portrait of “Philip IV in Brown & Silver.” Within a few days after the rehanging, the cleaning was noted in The Star and an article in the London Mercury described the cleaning as “well done.” However, the critic for the Daily Telegraph condemned the cleaning as drastic, seriously impairing the beauty of the picture. “It looks to me,” he wrote, “as if it might have been painted today, in preparation for next year's Academy. Along with the dirt which a simpler method of cleaning could have removed, the patina of natural age has disappeared. The canvas now shows through the thin texture to which the paint has been reduced. It is probable that Velazquez mixed paint with varnish and that in removing the latter, the upper layer of the work has been destroyed.”

Thus began a controversy over the treatment of a single painting that continued in the Daily Telegraph for three months, well into 1937. Over half the correspondents were artists, a small majority found the painting improved. Articles and editorials appeared in January 1937 in The Listener and in Apollo, in February 1937 in The Connoisseur. This controversy also reached newspapers and art periodicals in the United States.

As far as the National Gallery was concerned, the painting's condition after cleaning was considered exceptional. It had never been lined; places of heavily loaded paint were intact; areas of smooth painting, scumbles and delicate glazes were equally intact. Many alterations made by Velazquez in the form of pentimenti, previously invisible beneath darkened varnish were revealed in the cleaning. A very small number of losses required in painting, only one in the figure itself, a narrow cut in the left sleeve.

As World War II ended in Europe, another controversy began in England, with the return to London of the National Gallery's collection safely stored elsewhere during the conflict. In the few remaining undamaged rooms of the Gallery, as many paintings as the walls could accomodate were displayed. Scattered among these was a relatively small percentage of pictures which had been cleaned during or just before the war years. In marked contrast to the majority, the cleaned pictures were conspicuously visible. Immediate dissatisfaction was expressed over the brilliant, mostly cool colors, resulting, it was alleged, from overcleaning and from removal of glazes or paint. Letters to The Times starting October 1946 continued through May 1947. Among the several cleanings criticized three masterpieces received the stongest degree of censure.

Rubens, “Chapeau de Paille” (oil on panel, 31″ � 21 1/2″), cleaned in 1946 by Helmut Ruhemann.

Fig. 3. Rubens, “Chapeau de Paille,” National Gallery of Art, London.

Excerpts of complaints from letters to The Times:

“drastic cleaning of this picture is considered a disaster … over-rigorous cleaning has caused serious damage. … The sky color as left after cleaning is only intended as underpainting … shading has been removed from the proper right corner of the mouth … modelling of the mouth has been impoverished and the bosom presents to view twin deformities …” As usual there were other letters praising the restoration.

Rembrandt, “A Woman Bathing” (oil on panel, 24�″ � 18″), cleaned in 1946 by Helmut Ruhemann. Treatment involved removal of overpainting attributed to a 19th century restorer which covered the subject's proper right hand freely and sketchily painted by Rembrandt. The over paint there and elsewhere of the painting was previously confirmed by X-ray, ultraviolet and microscopic examination.

Excerpts of complaints from letters to The Times 1946:

“Extreme cleaning likely to produce a fresh crop of unfortunate results … the picture has been completely ruined … it has undergone a complete change of character; vital accents have vanished; removal of these touches was a ruthless action not justified if they were the work of a student or if they had been removed in an earlier cleaning and painted in again …”

In favor: “… far from being spoilt or damaged the picture has become a revelation of beauty; overpainted hand and wrist which have been removed were heavy and uncertain, not at all in keeping with the mind of Rembrandt.”

Velazquez, “Bust of Philip IV” (oil on canvas, lined, 49�″ � 21�″) cleaned 1946–47, practitioner not named.

Excerpts of complaints from letters to The Times:

“Utterly and irretrievably ruined … what man or body of men would dare to disturb its surface … since cleaning, hardly worth the canvas it is painted on … no longer a great work of art … ruined for all time and no longer worth showing … irremediable disaster.”

Letters defending:“… cleaned state a revelation of its beauty and inevitability … gratitude to the Trustees for their skillful work … satisfaction that the cleaning has regained substantially the condition it had in the 17th century …”

Beyond doubt this controversy motivated the National Gallery to mount the “Exhibition of Cleaned Pictures” in 1947, in which 75 paintings cleaned during the 1936–1947 period (including those mentioned above) were displayed with supporting records, photographs, color prints, and explanatory diagrams, including photographs of scientific apparatus employed in the examination and analyses. Partially cleaned paintings were included in the exhibition. Great effort was made to demonstrate safeguards and methods followed in the examination and in recording the processes which had been so criticized.

Also, the Trustees of the Gallery appointed a Committee of Confidential Inquiry into the Cleaning and Care of Pictures in the National Gallery. It was composed of Dr. J.R.H. Weaver, President, Trinity College, Oxford; Mr. George L. Stout, Head of Conservation, Fogg Art Museum; and Dr. Paul Coremans, Head, Central Laboratory, Belgian National Museums. A summary of the Committee's findings are as follows:

  1. None of the pictures examined was found to contain evidence of loss of original paint or other damage from recent treatment.
  2. The condition of the pictures and the processes recorded concerning the treatment of them, gave no indication that undue risks had been taken in cleaning.
  3. It was estimated that, in the pictures examined, the supporting materials, panels or canvases, were often as much in need of improvement as the paint surfaces.

In Holland following World War II, Rembrandt's “Night Watch” signed and dated 1642 (oil on canvas, lined, 146″ � 175″), was cleaned 1946–47 by H.H. Mertens, Chief Restorer, Rijksmuseum (the relining was done by C.H. Jenner, reliner to the Museum).

Complaint: Alexander Elliott, art critic in book, Sight and Insight, 1959.

“Major paintings are handed over to men in white smocks, clutching scalpels and chemical swabs … if there be 50 nailheads on a painted cask, they want to see 50 … so they strip away. Hardly a single master has escaped intact, but Rembrandt appears to have suffered most of all, both in America and Europe. His celebrated ‘Night Watch’ at Amsterdam is now a ‘Day Watch.’”

Defense: the painting, a group portrait of a civic guard company, was originally entitled “The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq.” A painter, Jan van Dijk, who cleaned the picture in 1751, wrote that it had been so plastered with boiled oils and varnish … it was no longer possible to make out certain details which came to light only after he removed the varnish. He admires the brilliance of the sunlight in the picture and commends the painter's bold relief and free manner. According to Horst Gerson in his Rembrandt Paintings (1968), the title “Night Watch” was first employed in the early 19th century.

In the 1950s, Mrs. Keck and I attended a dinner party where an internationally known British connoisseur attacked the cleaning of paintings in general, insisting that artists counted on the mellowing effects of time to enhance the harmony of their designs and colors. He was perhaps unaware that he echoed a 300 year old contention. One of the other dinner guests inquired whether the gentleman had viewed the Phillips Collection's Renoir “Boating Party” since it had been cleaned (by us, as most of those around the table knew). “It is ruined,” he said, “ruined … the harmony of the whole has been destroyed, the glazes have all been stripped away. … I stood in front of it and I wept.” Defense was undertaken by Mrs. Keck and if she may have exceeded normal dinner table proprieties, her statements were eminently accurate. We had photographically documented the painting, even made a color movie of our cleaning, and every solvent swab used on the surface had been saved in large glass jars.

Later that same year I accompanied this painting along with others to Paris for display in the “De David � Toulouse-Lautrec” exhibition at the Orangerie. I had opportunity to show our film of the cleaning to an audience which included Renoir's son. Afterward, he came up to tell me how much the painting now looked as he recalled it from his childhood and that to the best of his recollection his father never varnished his own paintings. Ours was the third recorded treatment this lovely scene had experienced since Renoir completed it in 1881 and if family evidence is reliable none of its imposed surface films was a part of the artist's choice.

Finally in 1978, the National Gallery of Art in Washington began to receive unfavorable critical reports of what was called “tasteless” cleaning of their paintings. Members of the board of trustees were troubled and concerned. A small advisory group consisting of Geoffrey Agnew, art dealer, London; Michael Jaff�, art historian, Cambridge, England; and Mario Modestini, painting restorer, were brought to the Gallery by the president of the board. In the exhibition galleries they inspected some twenty-seven paintings which had received major treatment by the conservation staff since 1971. In the conservation laboratory, they saw two paintings currently undergoing treatment, Chardin's “Soap Bubbles” and Rembrandt's “The Mill” (Fig. 4). After questioning the staff at length on their procedures and on their philosophy of conservation, each member of the advisory group communicated in writing his opinions on the quality of the treatments and the competence of the staff members. As a result of these communications, the staff conservators were informed that a moratorium on any cleaning of pictures was immediately in effect. Although opinions had been expressed on twenty-three other paintings, ranging from 12th to 20th century, the most severe criticism was focussed on “The Gerbier Family” by Rubens (relined and cleaned at Oberlin's Intermuseum Laboratory by Richard D. Buck and staff, not by the staff of the national Gallery of Art); Rembrandt's “Saskia,” Bronzino's “Woman with Little Boy” and Rembrandt's “The Mill.” Because of the moratorium, the last was stalled, relined and partly cleaned, in the conservation laboratory of the Gallery.

Fig. 4. Rembrandt, The Mill, National Gallery of Art (Widener Collection), Washington.

The situation, reported in the Washington press, spread uneasiness and concern among museum personnel in many parts of the country. As had their 19th century London predecessors, the Trustees of the National Gallery of Art in Washington appointed a panel in hope of resolving the affair. Its nine members—six museum director/curators and three persons from the conservation field (of which I was one)—were requested to come to the Gallery, individually, not as a body. Each was invited to inspect all the paintings criticized, review records of examination and treatment, interview members of the conservation staff and report in writing to the Director on the quality and competence of the work involved. As a member of that panel, I shall not quote to you the criticisms of the previous advisory group, since they were confidential and are not a matter of public record. Later each member of the panel was orally questioned by the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Paul Mellon, and the Acquisition Committee of the Board. Shortly thereafter the Board of Trustees of the Gallery issued a statement expressing confidence in the present conservation staff and their curatorial advisors, and terminating the moratorium on treatments, but with more stringent controls of procedures and closer oversight by the Director and the Acquisition Committee.

So the work on Rembrandt's “Mill” was completed. We can understand why the cleaning shocked some of those who saw it in process. When viewed with uncleaned Rembrandts, “The Mill” would definitely appear to be slightly naked. But the difference diminishes when it is compared with other cleaned landscapes by Rembrandt, “Landscape with Castle” (1640, Louvre) and “Landscape with Ruin” (1654, Cassel, Germany).

What conclusions can we draw from this brief review of some of the cleaning controversies past and recent? The paintings mentioned in this text constitute a small number of the renowned pictures which at various moments in their history have been labelled “flayed”, “ruined” or otherwise damaged by restoration. Yet all are on exhibition today and, with the exception of Leonardo's “Last Supper”, they appear to be in satisfactory state and reasonably representative of their artist. We are all well aware in the course of our work as paintings conservators that we have encountered paintings which have been leached by solvents and damaged by abrasion. However, the violence of opinion expressed over the treatment of these which we have reviewed seems out of proportion and overblown.

Careful study of the documents of these controversies suggests that at times the clamor and criticisms were motivated less by genuine concern for the condition of the paintings, than by politics, self-aggrandizement or jealousy on the part of the most persistent complainants. Marijnissen, for instance, questions the objectivity of Picault, LeBrun and David in the Louvre controversy of 1792–93. Picault was a competitor and rival of Hacquin who was under contract to the Museum Commission. LeBrun had career ambitions in the museum world. David, jealous of his position as virtual art dictator of the Republic, fiercely opposed any groups even distantly connected with the Academies of the old regime. Brommelle, in his article “Controversy in 1846” suspects that J. Morris Moore, the most virulent attacker of Eastlake and the National Gallery, may well have coveted Eastlake's position.

Admittedly, no aged painting is exactly as it was when first completed. Whether its actual state represents its artist and period will depend on the extent of deterioration, damage and loss. Not all masterpieces offer an equal degree of extant original. But there are some curators, directors, collectors, dealers and restorers who fear seeing a painting cleaned to expose its actual state, because such revelation might entail loss of face, loss of monetary value and loss of reputation for professional expertise. This point of view should, however, be recognized for the personal protection it is, rather than used, as some do, to extol non-uniform, selective cleaning as the safe way to return a painting to its alleged original state. Who among us can claim to have the clairvoyance, in cleaning selectively a century-old painting, to recover precisely its original appearance? We should clearly recognize that non-uniform cleaning customarily avoids areas covering losses, abrasions or color changes in the original paint, and is itself an alteration.

Decision on how a painting is best presented as representative of the artist and period will always be a subjective act on the part of owners, public or private. As for us, the conservators, no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to eliminate the influence of our own time and taste upon our concept of the past. Although it is salutary to recognize historical patterns of thinking, which have accompanied altered appearances of paintings down through the ages, we should remain undistracted from our responsibility to prolong the life of each painting we treat with minimal alteration from its actual state.


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Section Index

Copyright � 1984 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works