BEFORE AND AFTER:
Hans Holbein, the Elder
Portrait of a Man
Oil on panel
A work not seen publicly for decades will be on display when we reopen. Portrait of a Man was in no shape to be shown until it was cleaned and restored, and that's where Gwen Manthey, our NEH Conservation Fellow, comes in.
The fine brushwork and jewel-like colors of Hans Holbein the Elder were yellowed by several layers of deteriorated varnish. There were patches of old, discolored restoration paint on the face, and there was overpaint on the background and the architecture.
Manthey said restoration steps included the re-adhering of loose areas of paint back to the panel, the removal of surface grime with a water-based solution at a specific pH and ionic strength, and the removal of old varnish using solvent solutions specifically tailored to each layer. Over several weeks, the layers of varnish were slowly reduced, and areas of insoluble, unoriginal restoration paint were removed with a tiny scalpel under a microscope.
The fine underdrawing used to model the face, which would have been painted over by the artist, became visible over the centuries as the oil paint aged and became transparent. "We believe," Manthey said, "that the previous restorers considered the appearance of these dark lines disturbing, and mistook them for discolored varnish or dirt, and the face became incredibly abraded over repeated cleanings using solvents that were too harsh for the delicate layers and glazes of oil paint."
The rest of the painting was in fairly good condition, and did not require a lot of reconstructive inpainting. As Manthey explained, inpainting is confined to areas of lost, original paint, as opposed to overpainting, which extends over the artist’s original paint layers.
Using comparative images of other Holbein paintings, and photographs of a surviving sketch of the sitter by the artist, the inpainting process took weeks. While reconstructing lost details in the architecture, it was critical to maintain the translucency and thin surface of the nearly 500 year-old paint surface. In fact, "we allowed some of the underdrawing in the face to remain visible through the flesh tones," Manthey said, because it better matched "the normal aging characteristics of the original oil paint."
Thin coats of synthetic resins (designed to last decades longer than natural resin varnish) separate the inpainted layers from the original surface and helped resaturate the painting. The final varnish that she applied contained UV-inhibitors, and should prevent the latest treatment from deteriorating too quickly.