Claude Monet, “Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat” (all images courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland)
Conservators are probably the closest thing the art world has to surgeons. With care and precision, they repair wounds caused by old age, negligence, and, every once in a while, crazed attackers — as happened in 2012 to Claude Monet’s “Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat.” Painted in 1874, it was punched by an angry madman as it hung in Ireland’s National Gallery.
The team tasked with repairing the artwork had their work cut out for them. The assailant had left a massive triangular tear in the middle of the canvas, and some of the paint had been so badly pulverized that it couldn’t be reattached. Over the course of two years, conservators worked carefully to repair the painting and restore it to its original condition. A true labor of love, the project was recently documented on the museum website and has been reproduced here with its permission. Take a look.
After the painting was removed from the wall, conservators laid the painting flat to remove it from its frame.
Conservators then tested the paints and varnish Monet used to figure out which modern materials would be the most compatible with their 19th-century counterparts.
The conservators had to spend a good deal of time researching Monet’s painting technique and how other institutions had approached similar projects before embarking on the restoration itself.
The major repairs were made to the back of the painting. Before turning it over, conservators applied a temporary tissue cover to protect its surface. They used a special water-soluble glue that temporarily makes the painting stronger and is easily removed. Once this was done, the tacks were painstakingly removed from the stretcher.
The tears in the canvas had sharp, jagged edges which had to be flattened, aligned and rejoined together with the help of a powerful microscope and tiny tools. Conservators bound them together with an adhesive first developed in Germany more than 40 years ago.
These are a few of the conservators’ tools and materials: a mini hot spatula for applying heat, a warming plate, and glass containers for holding glue.
After the tear was repaired, the canvas was turned upright and its protective tissue removed. The surface was cleaned, lightening the canvas and bringing it closer to how it originally looked.
Because the painting had been so badly damaged, conservators had to add a secondary canvas to support the original.
Once this was completed, the canvas was returned to the stretcher and tacked on with as many original tacks as possible.
Next, conservators reinserted what fragments of paint they could, though many had been pulverized into a fine dust that was impossible to reapply.
In the holes that remained, conservators inserted a reversible, pigmented gesso made from chalk and a tiny amount of animal gelatin glue. Finally, they retouched the painting with watercolor.
Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...
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