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Behind the Scenes: Conservation of Paolo Veronese’s 1575 The Annunciation
By Eileen Sullivan Kress
Fellow in Paintings Conservation
The museum was given a grant last year by the Samuel Kress Foundation to fund the conservation of Paolo Veronese’s 1575 The Annunciation. The painting was in good condition structurally, but the varnish layer had discolored over time, which dulled and yellowed the colors, and some older retouching had shifted in tone, and had become visually distracting from the image. Throughout the painting, tiny losses to the paint layer revealing the white ground layer and small pockets of a very dark brown oil residue caused distracting “speckles.” In contrast to the fullness of Gabriel’s skirt and the green drapery behind him, Mary’s robe appeared very flat and was an uncharacteristic, uneven olive-green color.
Examining the Condition
The first part of the treatment began last fall and involved a detailed examination of the painting and its condition. The ground layers, paint layers and varnish layers were investigated and documented. The condition of Mary’s robe was particularly interesting, and to try to better understand that area, I took tiny samples of paint and examined them under a microscope. The samples appeared to be a blue pigment; smalt rather than the expected ultramarine – a blue pigment popular during the Renaissance. Venetian painters were known for their love of color, and a pigment such as smalt would yield an intense, translucent blue. Smalt is made out of silica, or glass, that can degrade over time, shifting to an olive-brown or grey hue.
Cleaning the Painting
Over a period of several months, the painting was cleaned. Several layers of varnish were removed, allowing the original colors of the painting to be seen more clearly. A second cleaning, with a tiny brush, reduced the deeply set, small pockets of darkly discolored oil residues that were particularly distracting in highlight areas. Veronese used a dry brush to add highlights to the image, often in contrasting colors to the paint below. For example, Gabriel’s purple skirt shimmers with orange and peach lights. These strokes give the impression of quickness and vitality, as if he was drawing with the paintbrush, and add a tremendous amount of energy to the image. But the sketchiness of the brushstrokes left many small spaces that had filled with the dark brown residues. Once the pockets of dark varnish were removed, the lines regained a great deal of their original force.
Learning by Comparison
As part of the project, I was able to travel to the Louvre in Paris, and the Prado in Madrid, to view other works by Veronese. Seeing the paintings in person is a very different experience than looking at photographs, and allows for a much better understanding of the artist’s technique. While the conservator’s aim is not to “repaint,” this understanding will allow my work to suggest to the viewer what the artist’s original intent may have been. An important painting I was able to look at was an Annunciation by Veronese located at El Escorial, a royal residence and museum just outside of Madrid. The composition of this painting is very similar to Cleveland’s The Annunciation, but while portions of Mary’s robe in this painting ha! d the same type of olive-green coloring and degradation, other areas were extremely vivid and well preserved. I came away with a far better understanding of what Mary’s robe in the Cleveland painting must have been.
The Work Continues…
Over the last month, the inpainting of Paolo Veronese’s Annunciation has begun. As losses are filled and toned, and abraded areas retouched, the painting is at once becoming quieter and fuller of movement. Over the next few months inpainting, consultations with fellow conservators and the curator, will continue.