How to clean a Monet

April 30 2012

Image of How to clean a Monet

Picture: Washington Post/US National Gallery of Art

Ann Hoenigswald, a restorer at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, tells The Washington Post how a subtly discoloured varnish can change the whole meaning of a picture:

Claude Monet painted “The Bridge at Argenteuil” in 1874 with its blue water and sky and its white clouds and sail. Yet by the 21st century, the important painting was looking dull and needed to be cleaned.

“It struck me it was much too yellow. What disturbed me was that yellow varnish had accumulated in the interstices of the brushwork. With the magnifying loupe and the microscope, you see how thick the varnish layer was and how it altered the intention of the artist,” said Hoenigswald, senior conservator of paintings at the National Gallery, who works on the fading canvases.

Now that the refreshed Monet has been rehung in the newly arranged 19th Century French Galleries, Hoenigswald talks about her satisfaction with revealing the artist’s intentions.

‘There’s a return to the palette which was intended by the artist. The whites were no longer yellow, the blues were no longer green and the purple shadows emerged, as did the crisp texture of the brushwork,” she explained. “However, what is always the most striking is the sense of space which is reestablished when the discolored varnish is removed. It is particularly apparent in landscapes. The relationship between foreground, middle ground and background makes sense again.”

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