Challenges of Art Restoration

Articles examines some of the challenges of art restoration to be considered as a senior couple or mature solo traveler you join a small group tour of Giverny, Brunelleschi's dome in Florence, the map room in Rome or Spinalonga Crete, the challenges remain.

4 Aug 21 · 11 mins read

The Challenges of Art Restoration

For centuries, professionals have been restoring masterpiece artworks back to their original appearance or function so that future generations can also experience their grandeur. Restoration involves any attempt to preserve and repair paintings, drawings, sculptures, architecture, or objects of the decorative arts. It focuses on the repair or renovation of artworks that have already sustained damage: wilfully, by negligence, or by the inevitable decay caused by the effects of time. The goal of the restorer is to return the artwork to the artist’s original, undamaged intent.

In recent decades, art restoration has developed greatly as a profession to become an increasingly important aspect of the work of museums, civic authorities, artists, and collectors. More effective approaches to studying, preserving, and repairing objects are constantly evolving, driven by great advances in science and technology.

Some projects don’t always go to plan, however. In recent years, some significant restorations have resulted in removing important aspects of the original works or painting them over entirely. Some have ended in outright disaster, sending shockwaves of controversy throughout the public.

This article explores some of these failed restorations that have gone viral in recent years, as well as some of the more successful projects, all taking place in Europe. It is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller‘s small group travel tours in Europe for senior and mature travellers.

With us you can travel to France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the islands of the Mediterranean sea, Croatia, Scandinavia, Central Europe, Greece or Turkey. Typically Odyssey offers extraordinary itineraries for a 21-day fully escorted tour in a European destination with an experienced tour director and local guides. Explore and learn about the ancient ruins of Rome or Greece, take in the beautiful scenery at Iceland or the Norwegian fjords, understand the importance of the Doge’s palace in Venice or experience world-class art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. A selected Odyssey small group tour package of Europe is sure to be a trip to remember.

Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh

Monkey Christ

In 2012, 81-year-old Cecilia Giménez hilariously ruined a fresco painted in 1930 by Eliias García Martínez, entitled Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). Giménez decided to touch up the fresco, situated inside her church in Borja, Spain, after noticing it had suffered through decades of moisture damage. Having been married in the church, she was keen to conserve its interior, pained at the idea of the frescoes’ loss.

So, she began by applying thick blocks of colour and retraced the divine countenance. With no training as an artist, however, her efforts left much to be desired, giving Jesus a blurred chimp-like appearance. She insists that it was only because she went on holiday mid-job before the painting was finished that it looks the way it does.

Ecce Homo. Photo by cea+ on Flickr

Her incomplete efforts, however, soon came to the attention of the local historical association, which indignantly posted before-and-after pictures of the painting. As to be expected, the failed restoration quickly went viral, sparking the nicknames Behold the Monkey and Monkey Christ.

At first the townspeople were up in arms about what had happened. But then, the tourists began arriving. Between August and December 2012, 45,824 people flocked to the sanctuary to see the fresco.

The numbers have slowed down a bit since then, but 16,000 people still visit Borja each year, making the painting currently one of the most visited in the world and easily the town’s biggest tourist attraction. In total close to 200,000 are estimated to have been drawn to the botched Ecce Homo.

People are charged to see the fresco, which now even has its own visitor centre and a multitude of merchandise, including mugs and t-shirts. The profits have helped provide jobs for the sanctuary-museum’s two caretakers, as well as fund places at Borja’s care home for the elderly. Giménez has even pocketed a slice of the profits herself, with her own work now selling for higher sums than before. What was once a major source of stress for the elderly lady, now only brings joy.

The Effigy of St George

A botched restoration of a 500-year-old wooden effigy of St. George, adoring a chapel in the town of Estella in northern Spain, caused havoc in the summer of 2018. The well-intentioned attempt to restore the walnut wood stature quickly went viral after not entirely going according to plan. The saint was left a laughingstock, with rosy pink lips and a strongly bold suit of armour. Many critics pointed out that it looked more like Tintin or a Playmobil figure than the legendary dragon slayer.

Photo source: ACRE on Twitter

The effort was reportedly conducted by a local handicrafts teacher untrained in the art of restoration and the council of the region was not consulted beforehand. The artists is reported to have applied several layers of plaster, repainted the figure, and sanded its surface, effectively erasing the entirety of it historical footprint.

Since then, however, the statue has been lovingly and carefully unrestored. Experts from the local government’s culture department stripped the sculpture of its showy paint layers, assessed the damage which had been inflicted, and largely returned the statue to its pre-2018 state using x-ray methods and research from photographs. The statue now has the same colours as before, hinting to its original 16th-century appearance. The bits of paint that were lost have been filled in and from a distance it looks the same, although the contrast between what is original and not remains clear up close.

The separation process was not easy. It was time-consuming, estimated to have taken all those involved with the project about 1,000 hours to undo the damage and restore the work. And it was a big effort economically, costing the archdiocese of Pamplona and the parish around €32,000. The cost would have been around €10,000 to €12,000 if done properly in the first place. Both the church and the company responsible for the restoration were also reportedly fined €6,000 each.

Copy of Immaculate Conception

In Spain again, in June of 2020, another restoration destroyed a copy of a famous painting by the artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo of the Virgin Mary. The original version by Murillo is hanging in the Prado Museum in Madrid, and this copy is reportedly likely to be by Murillo as well.

A private art collector in Valencia reportedly paid €1200 to a furniture restorer to have the painting of the Immaculate Conception cleaned. However, the job did not go as planned, with the painting returned in a smudged state. Horrified with the result, the owner demanded the restorers return his painting to its original state. The second attempt only made it worse though, rendering Mary’s previous delicate features completely unrecognizable.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo/Public Domain (left) Photograph: Cedida por Coleccionista/Europa Press 2020/Fair Use

As a result, conservation experts in Spain have called for a tightening of the laws covering restoration work. As it currently stands, the law in Spain allows people without professional training in conservation to engage in restoring old artworks. As such, mishaps are unfortunately quite common, with the wider public only finding out about them when people report them to the press or on social media.

Dutch Vegetable Seller

Not all restorations are botched jobs, however. In July 2021, English Heritage announced the success of a two-year conservation project to reveal the true glory of a mysterious, unsigned painting that had been in its stores for more than 60 years.

The 400-year-old Dutch portrait, known as The Vegetable Seller, depicts a woman encircled by fresh produce. Acquired for Audley End country house in Essex in the late 18th century, it had always been a mystery. The amount of work required to restore it, however, meant it was never as big a priority as other conservation efforts.

Art conservation experts finally began working on restoring the piece in 2019 in an effort to identify the artist and expose the original colours that had been toned down with a dark varnish and wear. As they removed the varnish and areas that had been painted over at some point in the late 18th or early 19th century, they uncovered more fine detail and vibrant colours than before.

Dutch Vegetable Seller. Credit: Christopher Ison/English Heritage

They also made a surprising discovery: the subject’s smile had been added. The picture’s original restorer had probably decided that the Dutch vegetable seller was way too brooding and should be smiling. Things have now been set right, with the women’s face returned to its original enigmatic expression. The restoration process also saw the removal of a strip of canvas with a poorly painted tower and dirty sky, which had been added around two centuries ago to make the canvas square rather than rectangular.

The restorers have concluded from their technical analysis and research that the painting dates from just before the Dutch Golden Age, much earlier than previous thought. This makes it highly likely that the painting is linked to the important 16th-century painter Joachim Beuckelaer, who was known for his depictions of market and kitchen scenes along with still-life paintings. His work features in numerous collections including those of the Prado museum in Madrid and The National Gallery in London.

The painting is now on been returned to Audley End for display for the first time in 60 years and in the way it was originally created for the first time in centuries.

The Petworth Beauties

The National Trust announced in January 2020 the completion of one of its most unusual and ambitious art restoration projects ever conducted. Paintings of two prominent duchesses, shortened 200 years ago to make more space on their owner’s wall, had been restored to their full glory.

The portraits were originally painted by Michael Dahl (1659-1743) in the late 17th century as part of a set of eight ‘Beauties’ commissioned for the Beauty Room at Petworth House in West Sussex. The women are Rachel Russell, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Mary Somerset, the Duchess of Ormonde. Both women had close links to the Courts of King William and Queen Mary and later Queen Anne and were highly respected women among the upper echelons of English aristocratic society. All eight women in the set of paintings were either cousins or friends of the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset, who rebuilt Petworth House into a Baroque palace.

Dahl’s paintings of the Duchess of Ormond and the Duchess of Devonshire before restoration, from the Collection at Petworth House, West Essex. Credit: The National Trust

In the 1820s, the third Earl of Egremont, then owner of Petworth house, decided he wanted some more space on his walls for new works celebrating the Battle of Waterloo. So, he ordered the reduction of six of the paintings of the so-called ‘Beauties’ to three-quarter length, famously declaring, “I will cut off their legs, I do not want their petticoats.”

Almost 200 years later, in 1995, the National trust curators discovered something remarkable. Fortunately, the Earl’s workers had chosen not to discard the lower sections of the canvasses but instead fold them up behind the paintings, affixed with tacks and nails.

The two paintings of the Duchess of Ormond and the Duchess of Devonshire have since been painstakingly restored and returned to the original full length. The project was conducted by J. Diamond Conservation for the National Trust, but not without its challenges. One of the portraits had jagged edges to contend with and both had holes where tacks were used to hold the cut sections in place. Re-aligning and seamlessly re-joining the cut pieces and refilling the wholes was a highly skilled and difficult structural treatment. Thick layers of varnish and overpainting were also removed to reveal muddy brown skin tones to be pinky white.

The two paintings appeared on loan in Tate Britain’s British Baroque: Power and Illusion exhibition in 2020.

Girl With a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) by Johannes Vermeer

A team of researchers at the Mauritschuis gallery in The Hague unveiled in April 2020 the results of its two-year investigation into Johannes Vermeer‘s masterpiece, Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665). Using modern imaging techniques, they were able to peer beneath the top layers of the finished painting in more detail than ever before.

Through macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning and digital microscopic examination, they were able to reveal the presence of delicate eyelashes on the girl’s face as well as evidence of a green curtain in the seemingly empty background. Both have over the centuries faded from view.

Previously, scholars speculated that the lack of eyelashes and the shapeless void of the background indicated that Vermeer was painting an idealised face rather than a real person. These discoveries now suggest that he was faithfully observing and painting a real person in a real space.

The researchers have also gained fresh insights into how Vermeer painted the work using different layers. It was shown that he began composing the painting in various shades of brown and black before adding the colours, working systemically from the background to the foreground. The pearl earring itself was rendered by adding just a few days of pigment atop the background; this creates an illusion of the jewel, which in fact has no contour nor hook to hang it from the girl’s ear.

The team also discovered changes Vermeer made to the composition of the painting. This included shifting the position of the ear, the top of the headscarf and the back of the neck.

To top it all off, through paint sample analysis the researchers were able to identify the sources of the pigments used in the oil painting. The lead ore in his white used to highlight the girl’s eyes and earring came from the Peak District in northern England; the cochineal in the red used on her lips came from the insects that lived on cacti in Mexico and South America; the vibrant blue in the headscarf was made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli in modern-day Afghanistan; while the yellow and brown pigments would have been mined in Europe. Thanks to thriving global trade, Vermeer would have been able to buy all the pigments from his hometown of Delft.

Despite the extensive examination though, the biggest mystery still endures. Who exactly was the girl? And did she ever really exist? The debate continues but we may now just be a little closer to her.

Small Group Tours Europe

Odyssey Traveller is a tour operate which offers small group tours around the world. Our tours of Europe for senior or mature couples and the solo traveller are inclusive insight vacations conducted by knowledgeable tour guide. The Europe trip packages in 2022 are conducted for groups of up to sixteen travellers and represent the best of grand tours of Northern Europe, Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe.

Odyssey’s small group tours of Europe are typically for 21 days, fully escorted with local guides and typically up to 12 to 16 travellers, a blend of solo traveller (s) and couples. Click here for a more information about our European tour destinations.

Our European tours also include a unique collection of itineraries related to classic and contemporary art including:

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about European Art published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

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