Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah

Have any of you seen the film, "Home for the Holidays" with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey, Jr.? Hunter plays an art restoration specialist in that film. This is an occupation that has always interested me, but I never got around to pursuing it. Most people aren't aware of the intensity of saving an old painting, restoring it. With this in mind, I have departed from the usual feature of art and artist on my blog today so I can share a step-by-step visual of the process involved in restoration. In this case, a very old painting had been split. This is the story of how the two pieces were reunited into one painting. (Thanks to J.W. for sending this to me.) I hope you enjoy it.

Bredius never saw the painting "the wedding night of Tobias and Sarah" as it is now in the Bredius Museum. He was owner of the right-hand part, the other part was in the 'Centraal Museum' in Utrecht. In 1996 two restorers from the Municipal Museum in The Hague, Wietse van Noort en Jan Venema, cleaned and restored the painting and put them back together again.

Initial reconstruction took place in the sixties. On the left part, two wingtips and the sheath of a dagger appeared after a restoration. This proved that the two parts had actually been one painting once. Now it also became clear that the green-clad figure is the arch-angel Rafaƫl who is rendering the evil spirit harmless with a burnt offering. In 1993 the art historian Albert Blankert proposes to restore the two pieces to one whole again. They decide to execute the plan at the restoration workshop of the Municipal Museum.

Both paintings had yellowed, but one was worse than the other. So the old varnish had to be removed to match the colors left and right. Especially on the left part many green-brown overpaintings were discovered, for instance on the side of the table. These may have been later corrections on Jan Steen's somewhat free and lively way of painting.

Especially in the grey smoke the layer of paint appeared very worn, i.e. many black dots from the background became visible. The macro-photograph shows how below the thick brownish layer of varnish the pattern of wear reveals itself.

Jan Steen is a painter who first roughly colours the background and only later fills in the foreground detail. Whenever he makes corrections such as here the corner of the tabletop which was changed from straight to oblique, it will become visible in the long run.


This is a macro-photograph of the tabletop edge which shows clearly how someone who thought Jan Steen's way of painting too untidy, overpainted it with a solid brown layer. The granular pattern shows that the pigment used to be much coarser than it is now.

Before a painting is cleaned, it is always hard to predict the condition of the layers of paint below the old varnish. Here, on the left upper part of the Tobias-and-Sarah half, the image seems reasonably well-preserved. There is crackle, but that is normal in old paintings.

Only after the cleaning the left side shows itself severely damaged: gaps and scorchmarks appears, possibly caused by a fire. The light- and dark yellow patches are old holes which at various times in the past were filled and retouched.

Old damage in the red chair also reappeared. One can see clearly how the painting was cut right through the depiction. Half a chair is quite unusual in 17th century paintings. Steen, who often depicted this chair in his interiors, always painted all of it.

After removing the old varnish, the two separate canvasses have to be joined. This is done through a so-called re-canvassing: a new canvas is attached behind the old one. The two paintings had in the past been re-canvassed separately, so they had to be peeled off in order to fit together on the new canvas. Here you see both parts, together with the patches for the missing corner and the strip in the middle,on the re-canvassing table, where a slight underpressure can be applied.

Through the gleaming plastic-foil the surface relief of the paintings is clearly visible. When the old and the new canvas are pressed together by the underpressure, the recanvassing table can be heated so the adhesive paste, a mixture of wax and resin, melts. After cooling down this provides a lasting adhesion.


Here the two halves have been attached to the new canvas, becoming a single object. Now all the unevenness between the old and the new canvas has to be removed. For that purpose, a strongly skimming light is shone from the side.


In order to function as painting, the canvas has to stretched on a canvas stretcher. Of course this has to be a new one, because the size of the painting has changed completely. The dimensions have to be determined very carefully, so that the whole of the picture can be seen in front and not obscured by the groove of the frame.


Also the folding of the edges had to be done with maximum precision, so that the image would not show up oblique on the canvas and therefore in the frame. Accurate to the millimeter, the unpainted edges have to be divided equally across all sides.

When the stiff canvas has been folded correctly across the stretcher, it is fastened with sharp carpet nails. To prevent anything going wrong during the stretching, the edges are watched carefully on all sides.


The recanvassing and stretching is done. Now the painting can be varnished, after which the retouching can begin. A photograph in this stadium is essential, to be able to determine later at any moment which parts exactly were done by Steen and which details and larger parts have been added later.

Tobias' legs during the retouching. Dot by dot the worn old layer is touched with new, adjusted paint. Note how the structure, the relief and the legibility of the untreated leg do not show to the advantage, whereas to the right everything looks as it was intended.


The pillow to the left of the pillar has been retouched, to the right it hasn't. The relief and the texture are gradually returning. The retouching process takes forever, it is also the least spectacular phase of the restoration. It does show however, what has been gained.


Another example: to the right of the seam, the wing has been retouched. The damage on the left side was caused by being overpainted for many years: only in the 1950's the wing was uncovered again.


In a few months the ruins of an old painting turn into a legible and enjoyable work of art. The retouches which are least problematic are done first, so their results can point the way for the more difficult parts.

Before the filling in of the larger missing parts there was much consultation with the parties concerned, experts and interested people. On strips of paper the first proposals for shape and color were laid down, and here the possibilities are being discussed with prof. Van de Wetering, restoration expert, and Ariƫlle Veerman, restorer from the government department.


The missing wingtip also had to be completed. Without wanting to imitate Jan Steen, a convincing filling still had to be made. The spread-out wing of a large mounted seagull from the Museon served as a useful model.


It is good to realize that, in spite of all the efforts, we are still dealing with the remaining middle part of a larger painting. The painting probably used to be much larger, especially on the left and the top side, possibly several decimeters. The kneeling couple might have been the centre of the composition. The restored parts are all that is left of a large, monumental composition. All one can do is to try to picture it in the mind's eye.


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