Restoring a masterwork

Velazquez’s “The Education of the Virgin,” currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, will soon be undergoing an extensive restoration that may take up to four years.
Velazquez’s “The Education of the Virgin,” currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, will soon be undergoing an extensive restoration that may take up to four years. Photo by Blair Seideman.

Those who have yet to see “The Education of the Virgin” at the Yale University Art Gallery have only a short time left.

The painting was officially attributed to Spanish master painter Diego Velázquez last July after sitting for 80 years in University storage, and is currently on view on the third floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, but it will not be there for long. On Feb. 21, the work, which is believed to be among the earliest known works by the painter, will go into conservation, a restoration effort that could take up to four years, said Laurence Kanter, the gallery’s curator of European art. He added that simply formulating a plan for the painting’s conservation will take the better part of 2011, while the actual restoration could be at least a two- to three-year process.

“Damage in a painting can range from extremely minor damage that is barely noticeable to extensive damage, such that [the painting] is unrecognizable,” Kanter said. “The Velázquez falls between the two.”

Because it was in stable condition and at no risk of further deterioration, the painting received minimal treatment before it was placed on view in early December, Kanter said.

“There was such a lot of publicity that attended its discovery, both positive and negative,” Kanter said of the July announcement of the painting’s authorship. “Most were thrilled, but some still don’t accept the attribution. We felt that it was in the best interest of everyone to make it available so that people who are interested could see it before any restoration work is done, so that there was no mystery about what the [painting] is or was.”

But, Kanter said, the painting is far too damaged to stay on public view.

THE STATE OF THE ART: CRITICAL

The painting shows areas of cracked, worn and altogether absent paint — two horizontal creases revealing the bare canvas run across the center of the piece — while the outline of a cat is dissolved into a faint gesture in the lower left corner.

“The Velázquez has been cleaned on a number of occasions in the past, and some of those cleanings have been very harsh,” chief conservator for the University Art Gallery Ian McClure said. “Probably those that were undertaken in the 19th century.”

The cleaning practices of the 19th century — “brutal” ones, in McClure’s estimation — resulted in patches of worn-away paint, as on the robe of the infant Mary. This makes restoration difficult, particularly when large chunks of the paint have been erased by solvent. A small amount of damage is easy to repair when the surrounding areas are intact, said Patricia Garland, the gallery’s senior conservator of paintings; the surrounding strokes can “knit” the objects back together and bridge the losses. More challenging is reconstructing areas where the whole modeling is worn away.

“You’re almost guessing what the artist wanted,” McClure said.

And part of the canvas is physically absent. McClure said the edges of the painting have likely been cut down on three sides, with marked shortening on the top and left sides. So while the figure of Mary should be central to the composition as an iconographic convention, she stands slightly to the left, meaning the piece has probably been trimmed on the left side.

Similarly, Kanter said he hoped the restoration process would return some readability to the canvas, though it will still likely be a far cry from the original.

“We can’t pretend that we can bring the entire painting back,” he said. “But we can make it such that the damage doesn’t get in the way of viewing.”

REPAINTING A VELAZQUEZ

Over the next months, planning the restoration process of the Velazquez will entail a series of meetings and discussions with conservators and curators both at Yale and abroad, McClure said. They will speak with representatives of the Prado museum in Spain, which has a long tradition of working on paintings by Velázquez, in addition to conservators in London, where the National Gallery holds a number of Velázquez’s early paintings.

By looking at these institutions’ Velázquez holdings, particularly early works that would have been contemporaneous with “The Education of the Virgin,” the conservators should get a better idea of how to retouch the piece, McClure said. The ochre robe of the central figure in “The Waterseller of Seville” — a Velázquez that currently resides in the collection of the eighth Duke of Wellington in London — could provide clues for completing the robes in “The Education of the Virgin,” for instance.

Once the background research has been done and a plan for a painting’s conservation has been set in place, the first step in the restoration of a work like this is to make sure that the painting is well-supported and that all the paint is firmly stuck to the canvas, McClure said. Conservators then fill in missing spaces, paying close attention to mimicking the texture of the surrounding brushstrokes. After texturing comes a layer of varnish, which ensures that any restorative steps that follow are separated from the original paint.

“We use materials that are completely reversible,” McClure said. “If anybody decides in the future that the way in which we’ve done things is no longer in the fashion [of conservation], our work can be removed very quickly.”

The next step is to actually begin filling in the missing colors of the painting, a process that is highly controversial. McClure said his team would likely make this a “deceptive” retouching: one that is subtle when seen from a distance but apparent when viewed under an ultraviolet light.

A final layer of varnish completes the conservation, which can either be made glossy or matte, depending on which looks best under the museum’s lighting. All this happens in full consciousness of the fact that the original Velázquez likely looked oily and shiny.

“Everything we do is a compromise between trying to be respectful to the intention of the artist but at the same time compromising that by making it understandable to the modern viewer,” McClure said. “The average viewer just wants to look at the subject of the painting.”

Still, McClure said, it’s impossible to plot out every aspect of a conservation project. Conservators work from past experience, but each painting has its own unforeseen challenges. For example, removing the lining of a canvas — an extra layer of fabric often set behind the painted canvas — could prove unexpectedly difficult because of an unusual ingredient in the glue.

“NOT A SECRET”

Despite the excitement whipped up by the discovery of a Velázquez, the conservation of “The Education of the Virgin” is a secondary goal for the University’s conservators at the moment, McClure said. Their top priority is preparing collections of ancient mosaics and roughly 30 mural paintings that are to be ready for the opening of the renovated art gallery in late 2012.

While the Velázquez will be out of the gaze of gallery goers for a few years, it will not be entirely inaccessible to students. Those who are eager for a glimpse will be able to see the piece as it is being worked on in the labs, Kanter said. The benefit of conservation at a university museum is that pieces under review can be made available to students and scholars in order to contribute to academic dialogue. In fact, anyone can view the two dozen paintings in active conservation at Yale, if they express interest, Kanter said.

“The process is painstaking and delicate, but it’s not a secret,” he noted.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City also recently reattributed a portrait of Spanish King Philip IV to Velazquez. The portrait was, in fact, only confirmed as a Velázquez after undergoing restoration.

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