Not much art being made, but conserving a Rubens copy was very rewarding!

20 May

Rubens was a very interesting character, and clearly the author of a 19C copy, bought by a private collector at a Sydney auction last year, thought so too.

Untitled – Rubens copy is a framed painting with the appearance of oil bound pigments on linen. The artist, title, date, provenance and origin is unknown. It is a copy of one of three identical self-portraits by Flemish Baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), painted between 1623 and 1625. Similarities and differences between all three exist, however Untitled – Rubens copy bears a closer resemblance to the 1623- 1625 version held in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy.

 

Untitled - Rubens copy, before treatment

Untitled – Rubens copy, before treatment

Untitled - Rubens copy verso before treatment

Untitled – Rubens copy, verso, before treatment

Untitled – Rubens copy lacks the finesse, handling, subtleties, blending and impasto of the original paintings by the old master (Huyghe 1964, p. 241, Luxford 2008, p. 226). The version currently hanging in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (on permanent loan from the National Gallery of Australia) was viewed in January 2014, while the custodian of Untitled – Rubens copy viewed the Uffizi version in February 2014. The custodian agreed that the authenticity of the work was not in question, and that authorship would be near impossible to ascertain.

As colour photographic copies were available from late 19C in art magazines, and monographs with high quality colour plates from 1911, it is possible the work was made as a transcription from a printed copy (Torcellini 2009, np). However the appearance of the canvas suggests Untitled – Rubens copy could pre date this era. It is also possible that Untitled – Rubens copy was made from another copy, or copied in situ at the Uffizi, where it has hung since Cosimo III de Medici purchased the work around 1625 (Drury 2000, p.337).

A comparison of the Untitled copy, and three versions by the hand of the old master

A comparison of the Untitled copy, and three versions by the hand of the old master

Copies of old master works were collected and commissioned by English travelers visiting Florence while on the Grand Tour between 1660 and 1840. Only the Uffizi version would have been on public display or accessible to copyists, students and photographers prior to the mid twentieth century.

Untitled – Rubens copy had suffered severe damage and its condition was in an advanced state of degradation. The painting was insecure, no longer stable and at risk of further degradation through instability of primary support and unknown chemical reactions occurring as a result of a combination of the degradation of original materials, and compatibility with unoriginal materials from previous interventive treatments.

The treatment aims were to: reinstate chemical stability and pictorial unity and where possible, originality of the painting. To ensure future usefulness, the frame was treated in order to unify appearance and meet conservation standards. Skills development was an integral aim, which meant a relaxation of the AICCM Code of Ethics and Code of Practice which stresses that conservators must recognise their limitations when undertaking treatments.

The treatment of the painting involved cleaning, varnish removal, removing bulges and distortions with humidification, strip lining, re stretching, infilling, inpainting, revarnishing and preparation for rehousing.

Untitled - Rubens copy during treatment, after cleaning and re stretching, losses were infilled in preparation for inpainting

Untitled – Rubens copy during treatment, after cleaning and re stretching, losses were infilled in preparation for inpainting

The ethical considerations of this treatment were discussed at each step, however a large question will always surround the ethics of full, partial or selective cleaning. By presuming to guess at the artist’s intent, and without a clear idea as to the original or unoriginal material, the decision to proceed with the removal of perceived overpaint could be regarded as unethical. However it is generally agreed that overpaint without historical significance should be removed to bring the painting closer to its ‘presumed original state’ (Boersma & Giltaij 1998 in von der Goltz 2012, p. 499).

A positivist approach was taken with this treatment, where ‘experimental investigation and observation become the source of knowledge’. It is acknowledged there can be two schools of thought with regard to maintaining the historical and artistic integrity, and legibility of artworks, and the inherent conflict which arises at all stages of cleaning, which is ‘a physical process in search of an aesthetic ideal’ (Bomford 2012, p.489). The two schools are 1: to manipulate the outcomes during cleaning (minimal intervention), and 2: to remove all accretions (at the risk of damaging the paint) and manipulate afterwards with ‘scrupulous high quality retouching’. As the overpainting served no historically significant or creative function, it prevented the artwork from carrying out its intention, which is the ‘expression of its own formal, stylistic and iconographic content’ (Ciatti 1990, p. 59). The overpaint and varnishes may have also caused deformations and cupping of the primary support due to high and unevenly distributed tensile forces.

The extrinsic aims of treatment were made clear from the outset, and the latter of the two schools was adopted, halting cleaning where it became obvious that the image layer was incurring losses. This may not be the appropriate approach for future treatments or custodians.

Untitled - Rubens copy near end of treatment, a radical improvement visually, but also a more chemically and physically stable painting

Untitled – Rubens copy near end of treatment, a radical improvement visually, but also a more chemically and physically stable painting

Untitled- Rubens copy verso, after treatment

Untitled- Rubens copy verso, after treatment

The result of treatment is hopefully a closer approximation of the original creative function of Untitled – Rubens copy than would have been possible with minimal intervention. The treatment is still to be completed, with more inpainting, varnishing and rehousing.  A lot was learnt, mistakes were made, and I look forward to the next conservation challenge and developing skills as a conservator.

 

 

 

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