What to do with a yellowed world?

The painting Susanna and the elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi received a special restoration in 1998 when Kathleen Gilje took over the work. She not only restored, but also added a substrate that can only be seen with x-rays. In that layer you can see what actually happened to Gentileschi when she was raped by her teacher Agostino Tassi. Gentileschi created works in which she felt the similarity to the biblical Susanna: raped by men and testimony that had to be decisive. Gentileschi said she wanted to defend herself with a knife. Gilje’s ‘underpainting’ shows the defending and screaming Gentileschi, where Gentileschi himself only depicted the biblical scene.

This is a bit of an extreme example, but in fact most seventeenth-century museum objects have been reworked by restorers. If they hadn’t been retouched or cleaned, you’d see peeling, cracked and yellowed works. In his book The veil of time Benjamin Rous examines the many lives of paintings and sculptures. How was a painting made, how was it changed over time, what happened to the adjustments in restorations, and what would the works look like if we had simply let the ravages of time do its work?

Sebastiano del Piombo: ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (c. 1510) after restoration.
Photo Fitzwilliam Museum

Take it Adoration of the Shepherds (c. 1510) by Sebastiano del Piombo – it is one of many examples given by Rous. When the work was cleaned at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was seen that the overpainting was of very poor quality. “The faces looked rough and clunky, as did much of the set, especially the sky.” The book shows a picture from before the restoration with all the ‘clunky heads’ still on, and the work after it had been cleaned and the overpaint removed. The result looks disastrous, only baby Jesus is still fairly intact. This raises the question of what to do. This is the question that runs like a red thread through the book.

New techniques unravel the ‘secrets’ of the master and discover the life course of a work of art, but it also raises questions: which version do you restore – and should you always restore? It has been a matter of debate for centuries, which flared up again in 1994 when the Sistine Chapel was restored. The sky was suddenly clear blue, Jesus and Mary were illuminated, and God appeared in red clothes. Not everyone was equally happy: this was no longer Michelangelo, for the essence of his art with the subtle shadow effect had now been removed.


But they also lead to pleasant surprises. The large picture of Cupid by Vermeers Girl reads a letter by the window is a recent one with a positive result. It was always assumed that Vermeer had done the overpainting himself, but thanks to paint research and several x-rays, it was established that the overpainting was done after Vermeer’s death.

You can also settle disputes with it. American Jackson Pollock’s works were sometimes seen as chaotic. “No chaos, dammit!” Pollock himself told the magazine that Time and connoisseurs wrote books full of his method. MA-XRF scans provide evidence rather than interpretation, revealing patterns of how Pollock used “specific properties of the various paints.”

On the other hand, things can go wrong: Rembrandt’s version of the biblical story of Susanna was significantly modified by eighteenth-century painter Joshua Reynolds because he thought the painting could be improved. What should you do now that you know? “For example, if you remove all paint that has not been applied by yourself, you will be left with a heavily damaged painting due, among other things, to the thorough adjustments. No museum will show a work of art in that condition,” writes Rous.

Why do we show the time when we show antique or non-western art?

On the one hand, we must accept that the original work cannot always be traced. After all, a painting is made over time. On the other hand, as far as Rous is concerned, it also raises the question of why the emphasis on ‘authenticity’ is so culturally determined. Why don’t we feel the need to return non-Western or antique art to its original state and show what time has done? Sometimes we even emphasize it (as in the Japanese kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired with gold or silver lacquer so that the breaks are accentuated rather than eliminated).

As far as Rous is concerned, we should place less emphasis on the idea of ​​a romantic ideal – in which the artist is a genius – that stands the test of time by default. Show that art is not static, show not the secret of the original work, but also the secrets of the many hands and circumstances that passed over it afterwards. Time then adds an extra dimension, instead of the ‘veil of time’ obscuring the view of the true work of art.

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