French art expert says Louvre’s Leonardo was overcleaned
Ségolène Bergeon Langle, former director of conservation for France’s national museums, accuses the team involved with the restoration of removing details of Leonardo’s original work by mistaking it for repaints by later hands.
She criticises the retouching on the landscape and removal of Leonardo’s own glaze on the infant’s body. A dozen letters she wrote “opposing the cleaning” and warning of damage to one of western art’s jewels “remained unanswered”, she said.
Two of the experts on the international committee that advised on cleaning were specialists from the National Gallery in London, Larry Keith and Luke Syson.
Bergeon Langle, an authority on art restoration, resigned from the committee, along with Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the Louvre’s former head of paintings, last December. At the time neither would discuss their departure. Bergeon Langle said only: “My reasons I am reserving for a meeting with the president-director of the Louvre.”
But this week, she gave an interview to a prestigious French publication, Le Journal des Arts.
In January 2011, she said, the committee agreed “a gentle cleaning” of late varnishes and the removal of stains on the Virgin’s cloak: “Yet, between July and October, a more pronounced clean was called ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with opposition to my position, which is technical, not aesthetic.” Her letters to the committee asking for details on the cleaning and materials to be used for retouching went unanswered, she said. “I had to resign.”
She believes the restorers were not cautious enough. “The Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far … The whitened layer on Christ Child’s body has been mistakenly understood as a late varnish gone mouldy.” She believes it was an irreversibly [original] altered glaze: “I recommended preservation, but nobody would listen.”
Considering that experts rarely speak out, her decision to go public is damning. It confirms the view of critics that the painting is left too bright and is robbed of the Renaissance master’s subtlety.
As the Guardian reported last year, a Louvre source revealed that Keith and Syson were particularly keen on this restoration.
Michel Favre-Félix, president of the Association for the Respect and Integrity of Artistic Heritage in Paris, was among those alarmed by the cleaning procedures. He is now collating a dossier of evidence, challenging the restoration on “points of gross misconduct”.
He said: “We are calling for the establishment of a scientific ethics committee, independent from the museums and the restoration teams, just as there is for medicine. It should re-examine the whole Saint Anne file.”
Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the restoration watchdog, said he was shocked to learn that Bergeon Langle’s warnings had been ignored: “It suggests either that describing what they planned would be dangerous and embarrassing or that they weren’t clear what they intended to do. Either way, it’s unacceptable.”
The criticisms resonated with another member of the Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, consulting expert to the Armand Hammer Centre for Leonardo studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He told the Guardian: “Restorations likely to generate such disapproval from leading experts should never be undertaken … Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s best authority.”
Asked to comment on whether other Leonardo paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned, Bergeon Langle gasped in horror: “Just do not do it!”
The Louvre and the National Gallery declined to comment.
elliottingotham.wordpress.com entry of April 9, 2012
The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Leonardo’s oil on wood depicting St. Anne, her daughter the Virgin Mary, and the infant Jesus grappling with a sacrificial lamb symbolizing his Passion, as the Virgin tries to restrain him, is being exhibited at the Louvre, together with all surviving related works. Commissioned as the high altarpiece for the Church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, the work was begun in 1501 and left unfinished upon Leonardo’s death in 1519.
The painting has just undergone a two-year restoration at the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (the C2RMF) under the hands of Cinzia Pasquali. It is the first work by da Vinci to be restored by France since World War Two. The almost defining yellowish-brownish-grey tint, which had blurred the outlines and veiled the painting by the great Renaissance painter, have gone. Previously, looking at the Saint Anne it would have been hard to imagine the brightness of the actual colours Leonardo had chosen – the lapis lazuli blue of the Virgin’s robe for example, or the cherry red lacquer pigment of the sleeve.
Pierre Curie, who headed the team which restored the Saint Anne, notes that sfumato was a word Leonardo never used himself, and is mistakenly associated with him. It came from varnishes applied to the painting in the 19th century to preserve it: “There was a fear of cleaning the painting in the 19th and 20th century, and so the varnish was very thick. We have not removed it, we have thinned it, leaving a “patina”. We haven’t touched Leonardo’s own materials, and we have left the passage of time and history on the painting. Techniques are different today.” [RFI]
The restoration was not without controversy. On October 7, 2011, Le Journal des Arts, a Paris art publication, reported that the restoration posed more danger to the painting than was previously expected. The restoration hit a major rock last year over concerns that a solvent used to thin the varnish could remove actual paint. Two experts resigned in protest from the committee overseeing the work.
To defuse tensions, the Louvre chose to leave an extra thickness of varnish on the subjects’ fragile faces. It also ruled out removing some elements, like a group of tree trunks, even though they are thought to have been added in the 19th century.
The exhibition includes compositional sketches, preparatory drawings, landscape studies and the famous Burlington House Cartoon (National Gallery), brought together for the first time since the artist’s death, and revealing his lengthy meditation and the succession of solutions he had envisioned for this masterpiece. Other painted artworks by Leonardo are also used to illustrate how Saint Anne is the true culmination of the artist’s numerous and varied explorations on nature and art. [The Art Inquirer] In all, there are 130 drawings, preparatory studies by the master, earlier versions of the work by his workshop, writings referring to the Saint Anne and works influenced by it, including by Raphael and Michelangelo. At a press preview, Vincent Delieuvin, curator of the exhibition, explained that he built the exhibition like a “police investigation, with all the clues to understanding the painting.” Sketches by da Vinci, full-size cartoons (pinpricked drawings used to mark the outline of the composition) and paintings of Saint Anne carried out by his atelier, show how he how moved through three versions of the religious scene. Each time he made minor adjustments, until the final composition in which the Virgin Mary seems to pull the baby Jesus away from the lamb – symbol of the sacrifice he is to make – as the wise Saint Anne urges her to let him go.
The exhibition of the restored Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child runs through June 25, 2012 at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
- The Real Da Vinci Code: Louvre Unlocks Last Work (luvsiesous.com)
- The real da Vinci code: Louvre unlocks last work (sacbee.com)
- The real da Vinci code: Louvre unlocks last work (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- The Real Da Vinci Code: Louvre Unlocks Last Work (abcnews.go.com)
- Louvre’s Da Vinci restoration ignites row (nation.com.pk)
- Louvre uncovers restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s last work Saint Anne (oyiabrown.wordpress.com)
- Restoration of prized DaVinci pits museum vs. art experts (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Fête Accompli | Ferragamo at the Louvre (tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Louvre experts dirty on clean-up of Leonardo (smh.com.au)
- French art expert says Louvre’s Leonardo was overcleaned (guardian.co.uk)