Conserving a Rembrandt: Part II of Portrait of a Woman

In part two of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s blog series focusing on the conservation of Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman, we take an in-depth look at the treatment issues surrounding the work. As with any treatment, a proposal was submitted and approved. This an in-depth report of the painting’s condition, an analysis of the aesthetic problems caused by the previous restoration, and a treatment plan outlining the necessary procedures.  

The procedures were thoroughly documented with high-resolution digital images by the museum’s photography and digital imaging department.  A special mount to hold the painting was designed to aid in the alignment of each image as the treatment progressed, as seen in the photo collage above. 

Damage to the paint layer was first documented in the nineteenth century.  Solvents used in this early cleaning either uncovered or caused the erosion of delicate layers of paint revealing more of the initial primuesel application (an orange-brown priming layer). 

A conservation treatment from 1971 attempted to correct these damages that took place a century earlier. However, this treatment misunderstood Rembrandt’s intentional technique of using thin dark glazes “left in reserve,” interpreting them as damage, and then concealed them with retouching. Fortunately, the retouching and the synthetic varnish from 1971 were composed of reversible, conservation quality materials that were easily removable with mild solvent solutions without any risk to the original paint film.

Preserving the luminosity of Rembrandt’s technique was critical in the inpainting. Therefore, losses to the original paint layers were strategically reconstructed in the order that they were created by the artist.   As each layer was carefully re-constructed, a photograph was taken to document the process by CMA photographers Howard Agriesti and David Brichford (as seen above).  As the inpainting progressed, it began clear that only a small amount of fine precisely placed inpaint was required; less than anticipated.

The slideshow above illustrates the photo-documentation of the treatment sequence: Beginning with image 1 (before treatment), images 1-4, document the cleaning process; image 5, shows the painting with an isolating varnish, before inpainting; and images 6-9, document stages of inpainting: working up from the lower layers to the final finishing layers.  

The inpainting concluded (see image 9) with only a minimal amount of reconstruction to final glazes in the “finishing” phase of Rembrandt’s painting process.  These final glazes, applied by Rembrandt at the very end, were extremely thin adjustments of tone and color.  They were also most susceptible to damage caused by the early cleaning that took place in the nineteenth century. Many of these fine nuances of the final glazing are lost forever and cannot be ethically reconstructed, since it is now impossible to know the original appearance with certainty. However, one can say with some confidence that the most critical aesthetic problems caused by the former restoration, mostly in and around eyes and facial features, have now been sufficiently resolved. The woman’s glance is more directed towards the viewer, giving her more of an engaging presence, something seen typically in Rembrandt’s portraits. The inpainting also improved the reading of the gradations between highlights and cooler-toned reflected light at the edges of the darker translucent shadows that were intentionally left in reserve. This contrast between the buttery impasto of the highlights and dark transparent shadows is an important part of Rembrandt’s skillful juxtaposition of opaque and transparent pigments that he and other painters used to create form and tactile illusion. 


You can see Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman, now on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art!

Have a question about this painting and its treatment? Leave a note in the comments section below!


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