Almost three years ago, an unhinged Irish gentleman named Andrew Shannon punched a 141-year-old Monet painting hanging in Ireland’s National Gallery. Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat was ruined — or so it seemed.
The painting had three jagged rips down its center, twisted outward from where Shannon’s fist hit the canvas. Shannon, for his part, is now serving a five-year sentence for his crime, which Metro UK explained as “an attempt to ‘get back at the state’.” But the painstaking restoration has taken almost as long as his prison sentence.
While it seems beyond repair in the image above, conservators at the National Gallery posted a detailed account of what sounds a lot like a harrowing surgery on its website.
First, they made sure that they had all the pieces. This is a 130-year-old painting, and when it was punched, says the gallery, “tiny fragments of paint and ground came loose and were deposited on the painting’s surface or on the ground nearby.” They had to carefully pick up and classify all these crumbs and flakes of paint so they could be restored.
Even then, some of the pieces are too small to figure out where they belong. “Seven per cent of the fragments lost during the damage were so tiny that even with a powerful microscope, it was impossible to relocate them back into the painting,” says the gallery. They still played a useful role in the restoration though; the lab was able to chemically analyse them to figure out the makeup of the paint Monet used.
Knowing more about the provenance of the paint, it was time to get started. Repairing the painting would require it to be turned upside down — it was placed on a “padded cushion” — and to “stabilise” it, the team covered the painted side with “a low-concentration of water-based, animal glue.” The idea was to make the paint itself stronger while so much was happening on the other side of the canvas.
Then came the real work:
With the aid of a high-powered microscope and appropriately small tools, the tear edges were carefully aligned thread-by-thread. Re-joining of the realigned, broken canvas fibres involved applying a specially formulated adhesive to achieve a strong but reversible bond between the thread ends. This adhesive material has been used and developed by painting conservators in Germany over the past 40 years.
Examples shown here include small steel surgical tools for working on tiny areas using a microscope; mini hot spatula for applying controlled and localised heat to the painting; warming plate and glass containers for keeping adhesive at a consistent temperature. Hydrated collagen adhesive was made in-studio.
If it sounds like surgery, that’s because it is. The ageing, fragile threads are almost like blood vessels that need to be carefully and gently tied off or rejoined. Any mistakes, and the entire painting could have been lost.
But there was still a huge scar down the middle of the painting. So, like piecing together a puzzle, the team placed those collection paint fragments back where they belonged using a microscope — and then used gesso and watercolor to retouch the remaining lines.
One of the most interesting things about the detailed account of the restoration is that along the way, every single technique was designed to be reversible. This is an idea that runs throughout art restoration and even archaeology, that, even though we might think we’re improving or studying a piece of history in the least harmful way possible, it’s likely that the conservators of the future will have better technology and better techniques for the work we’re doing now.
So they make sure to leave clear and careful breadcrumbs. Clues that, decades from now, might help future conservators understand how better to make this battered, beautiful painting whole. [National Gallery; h/t Hyperallergic]
Pictures: National Gallery of Ireland