To the untrained eye, the unrestored portrait known as the Woman in Red wasn’t particularly attractive. A yellowish sickly patina covered the whole painting, making colors dull and details indistinct. However, once restorers began to remove the grime, a vibrant artwork started to emerge, as if by magic. Indeed, it was a restoration that has captivated people around the world.
Portraiture has been around for almost as long as the art of painting itself. For most of that time, the people represented were the wealthy and powerful, a trend that continued for centuries. Even today, official portraits of the U.S. president or the British Royal family arouse a great deal of interest.
The Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century, was a golden age for painted portraits. Not only was it the time of artistic geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo, but it also saw new techniques and materials emerge that would change the world of painting forever. Luckily for us, thanks partly to the work of art conservators, many portrait paintings survive from this time.
The Renaissance saw the emergence of oil paint. It replaced tempera as the medium of choice, first in northern Europe, and then throughout the continent. Because of its slower drying time, artists were able to spend longer correcting and perfecting details. They could also now vary the thickness of the paint and add different textures.
As in earlier times, important people were the most common subjects of Renaissance portraits. Nobility, officials and, sometimes, wealthy families would commission well-known artists to paint them. Under their patronage, artists could innovate and improve their techniques, becoming more and more realistic, as was the fashion.
After the Renaissance, the Baroque period in the 17th century saw portrait painting continue to increase in popularity. It was a way for the rich and powerful to display wealth and status, especially by their clothes and jewelry. And the Woman in Red was created in this period, in 1617.
Naturally, with all the effort that went into these paintings, not to mention the subject’s desire to be recorded for posterity, preservation was important. One method of protection used during the Renaissance was to give the paintings physical covers, which could be closed to protect them. Another was the application of varnish.
Varnishes at this time could be made from a variety of natural substances. The most common were either made from egg white or tree resins such as mastic or dammar. These resin varnishes weren’t only used to protect the painting, but to add depth and richness to the colours.
Unfortunately, there was an undesirable side-effect of using these resin varnishes. After a long time they begin to discolor, creating a film that dulls the paintings they cover rather than brightening them. This, along with the buildup of dust and grime is the reason old paintings can look yellowed and opaque.
Cleaning an old painting and, as in the case of the Woman in Red, removing centuries-old varnish, normally make a painstaking process. Painting conservators have been called “the magicians of the art world” because of the particular knowledge and skills required to restore an old painting successfully.
Philip Mould is not a professional conservator but a celebrity art dealer, author and presenter of the high-rating Antiques Roadshow on the BBC. In the past he has found “lost” masterpieces, and in 2005 he was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to the art world.
This month Mould shared on Twitter a video captioned, “A remarkable Jacobean re-emergence after 200 years of yellowing varnish … what a transformation!” In the clip, which quickly went viral, the art expert is shown removing a thick layer of yellow-brown grime from the 17th century oil painting known as the Woman in Red.
“The painting was originally in a private collection in England,” Mould later told The Telegraph. He compared the painting, which he bought at auction, to work by a leading painter of the Jacobean period, William Larkin. However, this particular painting wasn’t by Larkin.
In the video, Mould is seen applying a viscous substance to the oil on oak panel painting, scrubbing it with a brush, and then wiping off the scummy layer with a cotton swab. “A mixture of gel and solvent was created, specifically just to remove the varnish and not to damage the underlying paint,” Mould told The Telegraph.
Removing old varnish from a painting is normally a long and difficult process. The varnish is typically removed in layers, all done under a magnifying glass. There can be no mistakes as any damage done to the original paint can never be undone. So conservators take photographs and make notes as they go, so that they document the entire restoration.
“The use of gel has developed markedly in recent years,” Mould said of his relatively speedy technique. “It’s different from normal restoration, with the gel suspending the solvent and working in a more controllable way.” Mould told the Evening Standard that the removed varnish had actually served its purpose as a protective layer preserving the paint underneath.
While Mould’s video wowed thousands of viewers, not everyone was so impressed with his restoration. “When I saw this video the first time, after about 10 seconds, I just had to turn it off because I couldn’t watch it anymore,” Rob Proctor, a conservator at Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston, told Live Science.
According to Live Science, art conservators believe the technique used by Mould in the video was risky. They worried that applying such a quick and easy seeming method to a valuable antique painting could result in permanent damage to the artwork. “It’s an unfortunate thing that it’s gone viral when there are a lot of other things that would be far more representative,” said Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation, New York.
For his part, Mould told the U.K.’s Press Association that he did not even begin his restoration work without first doing multiple tests to ensure he had necessary mix of solvent and gel, and that the original painting wouldn’t be harmed. So far, there don’t seem to have been any unwanted results.
Little is known about the Woman in Red herself, except that she was aged 36 when she was painted. Mould told HuffPost he found the subject tantalizing. He said, “With cleaning, we hope to get more clues in the dress and the jewelry that could be a message as to her identity.”