Conserving a Rembrandt: Part I of Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a Woman, 1635 or earlier. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), and Studio. Oil on wood, Framed - h:97.79 w:83.82 d:6.40 cm (h:38 1/2 w:33 d:2 1/2 inches). Unframed - h:77.50 w:64.80 cm (h:30 1/2 w:25 1/2 inches). The Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Collection 1944.90.
As part of the Rembrandt in America exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2012, a special gallery was designed to illustrate the specific conservation problems of our Portrait of a Woman, signed and dated 1635 by Rembrandt van Rijn. This conservation gallery featured how the state of preservation and previous restorations had combined to muddle observations about the painting’s execution and question the level of quality. Since the exhibition’s focus was about attribution and connoisseurship, the issue of how a painting’s condition influences our understanding was an important part of this painting’s assessment.
Placing the Portrait of a Woman in the larger exhibition (pictured above) allowed viewers to consider first hand how a previous restoration could actually interfere with scholars’ past and present understanding of our painting.
Perfectly aligned digital images of the painting seen under different lighting conditions and wavelengths of light (visible, raking, specular, infrared, ultraviolet, and x-ray) were assembled in layers and then cycled in a video presentation to reveal distinctive features about the actual paint conditions beneath restoration (seen above). Abrasions to the paint from a well-documented nineteenth century cleaning and more recent retouchings over old damages from the 1970’s conservation treatment were diagrammed to detail how the painting was aesthetically compromised.
An iPad application (pictured above) was also created so visitors could explore the technical images of the portrait using a unique finger flashlight tool, which revealed paint structures and conditions that were hidden under normal light.
The involved task of mapping out and presenting the various condition problems associated with our Rembrandt portrait aided the public’s understanding of the aesthetic shortcomings. The process also helped the conservator plan out the steps of the treatment. Coming in part two of Conserving a Rembrandt here on the CMA blog, we'll show the process of treating Portrait of a Woman - before and after - and invite you to see it for yourself at the CMA!