Cracks, yellowed varnish and loss of paint
L.A. Ring’s painting Harvest has been exposed to quite a few things during its 120 years of history. There are several clear indications of that. The coat of paint had several big cracks, and the picture had started to lose paint. Therefore I had to secure the paint layer before putting the work on display.
Besides, the varnish was yellowed and covered by sooty dirt. The sky and the farmer’s shirt looked green rather than blue, and the yellow colour of the corn had become rather brownish.
It is one of Ring’s technical characteristics that he works up the colour with the brush and the brush handle, so that, for instance, the corn sticks out from the surface. But that effect had also been drowned, so to speak, in several layers of varnish. Thus the paint layer looked flat except where the many big cracks had appeared over the years.
Painting on top of a painting
Before I start restoring a painting, I always examine it carefully and document its condition.
I knew beforehand that there was another painting underneath Harvest, namely the first version of Drain Diggers, the final version of which is also shown in the Ring exhibition.
If you study Harvest closely, you can glimpse an outline on the surface of the paint layer, which does not seem to have anything to do with the motive. We have taken a photo of the work in raking light, and the photo shows a faint contour to the right corresponding to one of the drain diggers. It is also possible to get a vague glimpse of the red earth colours in the drainpipes through the golden brushstrokes which make out the corn to the bottom left of Harvest.
To examine the paint layers I have taken out tiny colour samples for examination in a microscope. They clearly demonstrate the organisation of the paint layers in the underlying version of Drain Diggers and the layers of Harvest on top of it.
At the bottom of the paint cross section you see a little of the white ground. Above that we have a light greyish brown layer corresponding to the background colour of the Drain Diggers, followed by several layers of earth red colours worked up from a coarser and then a finer red colour. On top we have the ochre yellow of Harvest.
An x-ray photograph of the painting shows that Ring got rather far with his first version of Drain Diggers. On the x-ray picture you can clearly see the two drain diggers at their work. Contrary to the finished version, where the drain digger to the right is standing in the ditch, he is standing in the foreground wearing large wooden clogs.
A vulnerable artwork
The damage to the painting is to a large extent due to the almost finished painting under Harvest and caused by the many thick layers of paint. The painting structure is vulnerable to shocks, vibrations and climatic changes. This leads to fissures, flaking and damaging paint losses.
Ready for the exhibition
Before the painting could be exhibited, I had to clean it for dirt and then for two layers of darkened, yellow varnish. I also removed some miscoloured overpaint from earlier conservation. Then the big cracks in the colour layer have been secured with glue and planed. The colour losses have been filled out and touched up.
Finally I gave the painting a very thin layer of synthetic varnish, which will last longer than the original one and become less yellow.
You will now be able to enjoy the colours in the painting as Ring chose them from his palette and experience the textural effect of his colour layers.
Pauline Lehmann Banke