Last Friday I drove to Austin to view the progress on Villa Finale’s Lazarus-themed painting in Mark van Gelder’s conservation lab and studio. Here is the studio from the outside …
… you’d never know this is what the inside looks like:
The first thing that Mark did to the painting was to stabilize the canvas and press it down to the backing fabric to smooth all tears and eliminate any irregularities. I use the word “press” because that is exactly what the procedure is. The fine linen that the painting is actually painted onto is adhered to a thicker fabric by a mix of bee’s and other waxes, thus saving the original canvas from being stretched too tightly and becoming deformed or torn. Here is an edge of the painting after Mark removed layers of grime and old varnish:
The yellow wax is clearly visible in between the canvas and backing fabric. When the canvas was stable and smooth enough to work on without damaging it, Mark began to clean the surface with cotton swabbed on a pencil-sized stick dipped in a three-part chemical cleaner.
Here is Mark diligently swabbing and one of the swabs:
Eww. What you see is years and years of build-up of dirt and old varnish. He left a some of the varnish on the surface to allow the canvas to retain a little elasticity. He will fine-clean at a later date.
Mark has cleaned half so far, here is the result:
Because of the methods used in the past to conserve the painting, Mark thinks that the last time it was cleaned was most likely in the 1940’s. This ties in very nicely to the fact that Mr. Mathis purchased the painting in the early ’40’s–getting it ready to sell!
There was conjecture around Villa Finale that the painting had been removed from its stretcher bars and folded for some ominous reason. Upon closer examination, it appears as if the old linen canvas was loomed only to a certain width and sewn together to create a larger canvas. You can see the seam in the middle.
In smoothing and cleaning, Mark also discovered artistic elements not seen until now. He brushed on a light linseed oil to allow me to see details. What we all assumed was just another sore on the beggar’s shoulder was in fact a glop of old varnish. Here it is cleaned and sore-free!:
Mark revealed plates, tablecloth design, clothing and more. This is my favorite bit:
I will return in a few weeks to document further progress. The canvas will be completely cleaned off which will allow Mark to pursue the fine details such as filling in cracks and tears and “in-filling”, basically painting damaged areas in the manner, texture and color that the original artist employed.