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A rediscovered masterpiece

In the Gallery’s storage facilities our art historians and conservators will occasionally discover works that have not been appreciated in accordance with their true merit, but which turn out to be of surprisingly high quality once cleaned and restored. The restoration of one such work has just been completed, and it is now part of the new display of the Gallery’s collection of European art.

Detail during cleaning of the yellowed varnish

A well-known Flemish painter?
The small panel showing the Virgin with Child had been in storage for decades due to the yellowed varnish, discoloured retouching, and several layers of grime. The painting was brought to the Conservation Department in 2009, where conservator Troels Filtenborg carried out the initial examinations of the work and conducted a cleaning test where part of the yellowed varnish was removed. The painting proved to be of such quality that art historians are currently discussing whether the painting may be the work of one of the famous Flemish 15th century painters.

A prominent buyer
The support of the painting is a single plank of oak primed with a thin white chalk ground.  The background was gilt with gold leaf applied prior to the painting of the figures; this is evident because the paint used for
the figures cover the gold in several places.The Madonna’s blue garment was painted using ultramarine,
which was the most expensive blue pigments available in the 15th century. It would appear that the original buyer of the painting
was a person of wealth.

Microscopic paint sample from the Madonna’s blue garment

Ultramarine was more expensive than gold and was made from the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, which was mainly mined in what is present-day Afghanistan. Beneath the expensive layer of ultramarine the artist applied a layer of the less precious pigment azurite to save on materials. The two layers of blue pigment can be seen in the cross-section above.

The initial sketch
The motif was outlined with a black material onto the white ground before the artist began the processes of gilding and applying the actual paint. The underdrawing is particularly interesting, as it shows signs of having been done rapidly with many revisions. Almost all of the Madonna’s fingers have been made shorter or been moved – as is shown by the detail below.

Detail in Infrared Reflectography. The width and fluidity of the lines suggest that the underdrawing was done with a brush

Small details
The skin tones of the Madonna and Child were achieved using paint applied in relatively thin and even layers, while the draperies and part of the white garment were created by means of slightly thicker layers and some impasto. In some of the highlights in the white garment, small lines have been scratched into the wet paint, and the Madonna’s hair features very thin brushstrokes that accentuate the way her hair falls.

Small lines scratched into the wet paint

Fine brush strokes in the hair

The restoration
After Troels Filtenborg had removed the yellowed varnish and the many old retouchings, the white chalk ground had become visible in several places, particularly in the much abraded gild background and in the lower left-hand corner of the blue garment. These damages have now been filled and retouched, while the wear to the background has been partly re-gilt so that the gilding once again forms an unbroken plane behind the Virgin and Child.

Paint loss in the blue garment as seen during the restoration process; the underdrawing became visible where the paint layer had been lost

Updated: 7.jul.2014
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