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February 27, 2014

Technology Helps Restore Paintings by Old Masters

by George Putic

In the late 16th century, the Spanish artist El Greco created a huge painting, 1 meter by 2 meters, titled Saint Martin and the Beggar. In the first half of the 20th century, the canvas was covered with protective varnish that over the course of decades caused discoloration. Conservators at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., are now restoring the painting in preparation for a series of exhibitions marking the 400th anniversary of the famous painter’s death.
 
Often changing the cotton tip on her wooden pick, the National Gallery of Art's senior conservator of paintings, Ann Hoenigswald, patiently cleans the canvas, millimeter by millimeter.
 
She said the painting by the famous Renaissance artist, best known by his nickname El Greco, needed conservation treatment because the aged varnish started turning yellow, altering the colors.
 
“The whites turn yellow, the blues turn green. It really dulls down the vibrancy of the tones the artist intended,” said Hoenigswald.
 
Before starting the conservation, the scientists closely examined the painting, looking for possible damage and alterations to the original. Imaging tools such as microscopes, infrared cameras and x-rays allowed them to penetrate the outer layer of paint.
 
This analysis clearly showed how El Greco altered certain parts of his work.
 
“Initially you can see the bridle was a little bit higher and most likely because some of the paints become more transparent as they age that’s why we’re seeing this line under here," said Hoenigswald.
 
Technology helps analyze the artwork, but the actual restoration must be done by hand. Hoenigswald said she has been working on Saint Martin and the Beggar for about a year, slowly revealing its original beauty.
 
“All of a sudden the depth of the painting, the background seems to recede even more and the foreground comes forward and, as you can see in this picture, the whites become so dramatic, and so dominant, and the contrast between this gorgeous blue and the white becomes much more forceful than it was before,” said Hoenigswald.
 
After cleaning the painting, the conservators applied another product of modern technology - synthetic varnish that mimics the natural resin but will not alter with age.
 
The canvas is now about to be packed up and sent off to Toledo, Spain, the city from which it came, to be part of an exhibition marking the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death.