A brush with painting’s history

The restoration of great works of art is increasingly being carried out in public before an admiring audience

Michael Prodger

Even before Rembrandt’s 350th anniversary year is over and the banners that currently spatter Holland advertising 11 exhibitions under the blanket title “Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age” have been rolled up, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will undertake its next major project. The museum’s key work, the first painting in its collection and the only one for which a special gallery was built, is due for a clean. Rembrandt’s The Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, better known as The Night Watch of 1642, is, at 3.5 by 4.5 metres, the biggest picture he ever painted and one that looms just as large in the national cultural imagination.

The painting has already been restored or titivated some 25 times in its history and has suffered the indignity of being cut down in 1715 to fit a new setting, attacked with knives in 1911 and 1975, and sprayed with acid in 1990. This time the restoration has been prompted by age-related changes in the painting’s condition. The museum is still smarting from the criticism it received when it closed for 10 years (five more than intended and some $500 million over budget), only reopening in 2013, so it is in no position to remove The Night Watch for a process that will, says the museum’s director Taco Dibbets, take “years”. Its solution is a form of performance art that has become increasingly popular: the painting will not be moved but will be encased in a seven metre-square glass chamber designed by the French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and the whole process will be on view to the public in person and via a live internet stream.

It is not the first time the solution has been used. In 2010 the Brera in Milan encased Giovanni Bellini’s Pietà and its restorers in a ramshackle clear plastic tent in the middle of the gallery, while the Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, one of the foundation works of Western art, started a similar public restoration programme in 2012 and the first phase was completed in 2016. The project to clean the altarpiece’s 12 panels is ongoing and still attracts innumerable visitors as fascinated by the process as by the painting itself.

The National Gallery in London took a slightly different approach with its recent acquisition of Artemesia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as St Catherine of Alexandria, 1615-16, unveiled late last year. The chief restorer, Larry Keith, was filmed at work and his processes could be followed on YouTube, each swab and brush stroke set to music so that the restoration, carried out behind closed doors, nevertheless became an event.

The necessity for such transparency has become ever greater. What most gallery-
goers forget is that there is not a single old master painting in a public gallery in the West that has not, at some time in the ensuing centuries, been touched by a brush other than the original artist’s. The fragility of paintings has made this a necessity while changes in taste have sometimes made it a choice. What is often less than clear is how much of an intervention has taken place.

One of the reasons why the world’s most expensive painting, the Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo that sold in 2017 for $450 million, has proved so contentious is that it has undergone two recent bouts of restoration that were not documented to the standards practised by major art institutions and that bordered less on conservation than on reinvention. Not only was the walnut panel of the picture itself in a parlous state and separated into five pieces during the restoration, but the two most important areas of the picture, Christ’s face and the crystal orb that represents the world that he holds, were the places that had suffered the greatest paint loss — down to the wood in some places. Diane Modestini, the New York restorer hired to get the picture back first to a presentable state and later to a saleable one, had to interpret what might have originally been there from other bona fide Leonardos and from intuition. Images of the stripped painting that have emerged on the internet are shocking.

Another reason for the recent trend towards openness is the sheer cost involved. For example, the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling that took place between 1979 and 1994 was funded by Japan’s Nippon Television Network Corporation in exchange for filming rights. Indeed, the Vatican has proved no slouch when it comes to getting others to pay for preserving its art works: its latest wheeze is an app called Patrum that, when downloaded, demands a minimum donation of $10 towards ongoing projects. The Holy  See is not alone though; the Musée D’Orsay’s restoration of Gustave Courbet’s masterwork The Artist’s Studio, which took place between 2014-15, was also crowd-funded. If you are going to pay towards a restoration project it is good to be able to see how your money is being spent.

When I spoke to the Rijksmuseum’s head of conservation Petria Noble about The Night Watch project, she professed to being unconcerned about working on the painting under public scrutiny. She admitted, though, that once the initial 70-day high-resolution imaging process had taken place, touching the surface of the picture for the first time would be nerve-jangling. It is a moment that will be witnessed by the museum’s 15-strong conservation team and a host of other restorers and scholars from Holland and beyond who have been invited to collaborate on the project. It will also be viewed just as intently by thousands of amateurs keen to get closer to Rembrandt’s semi-mystical paint surface than is possible in front of the picture itself. But what they might in fact get close to could just be the paint applied by a previous restorer.

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