Watch: the Metropolitan Museum of Art Restores a Painting from 1660
Set aside a few minutes for an oddly satisfying look at an intricate process
When Charles Le Brun’s A Portrait of Everhard Jabach and Family was hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in May, it was the first time the painting had been on public display for centuries. It had also been quite a while since it looked that good. A video from the Met documents how their painting conservation department restored the work, and beyond elucidating a process that’s pretty hard to imagine, it’s got some very satisfying moments, if you’re into watching intricate physical labors, the successful handling of delicate objects, or things being cleaned.
French painter Charles Le Brun created the work around 1660. He was by then very popular in France, having helped beautify the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Louvre’s Galerie d’Apollon, and much of Versailles. (For all this, Louis XIV deemed him “the greatest French artist of all time.”) The painting shows Everhard Jabach, a German banker and collector, posed with his family and their pet whippet beside a pile of educational and allegorical sundries: a celestial globe, a Bible, Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise on architecture, and a bust of Minerva. There’s also a bit of a “relationship between painter, patron, and painting” essay prompt included, as you can see Le Brun’s reflection in a mirror beside Jabach.
Before Met conservator Michael Gallagher got his hands on it, you could also see a rather distracting rupture in the paint film running through the upper half, the result of the canvas being transferred to different-sized stretchers over the years. But in comes Gallagher with his heated iron and his tiny paintbrush, and all is made whole again. The coolest part by far is when the roller comes into play, a huge tube used to flip the canvas over safely by turning it into a scroll.
By the end, the tone difference between the removal of the discolored varnish and the application of the new final layer is pretty astounding. And to think, if Britain’s Art Council had its way, it never would have come here.