The Botched Restoration Job on This Painting Is Just Breathtaking

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Print Collector - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

The fresh hell below is a disfigured reproduction of a classic work by Spanish painter Bartolomé Murillo, and the owners say they paid about $1,400 to have the work restored. Besides the need to hire more qualified and credentialed restorers, why does this seem so easy to do?

The painting at the heart of this story isn’t an original, like the Spanish “Monkey Jesus” fresco that a churchgoer with no qualifications just decided to paint over (below). But a copy of a genius’s work can also be prestigious and costly, depending on how and where it was painted. If the art collector paid over $1,000 to have just one painting cleaned, the painting must be special. And no one wants their property destroyed.

Consider a real masterpiece like the Mona Lisa, whose eyebrows and eyelashes were scrubbed off by a restorer. That’s in addition to discoloration over time. “Age, varnish and restorations performed by later conservators' hands have resulted in a painting that, in its permanent home behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre, appears saturated with heavy greens, yellows and browns,” CBS reported in 2007.

Without using nondestructive, but penetrative testing, like the special camera that uncovered the missing eyebrows, it’s easy to misjudge the layers of a painting. Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute explains that newer paint could be more durable than what’s beneath:

“Repaint [...] may have been executed in a media far tougher than the original paint. [T]he only way to remove it is by mechanical means under magnification, and even then not without some minute losses.”

Spain has an organization for art restorers, and a representative told the Guardian that there’s no professional or legal definition of an art restorer or cleaner. Anyone can just take the money and start scrubbing. A quick Google search reveals dozens of suggestions for how to clean an oil painting, including some firm “if in doubt, don’t touch it” real talk. Someone charging $1,400 to restore one painting isn’t a misguided housekeeper or a well-meaning churchgoer.

What sets the disastrous viral examples apart is that after these people accidentally destroy artwork, they take it on themselves to “just” repaint them. One of the reasons professionally trained restorers are successful is that they understand the context of materials and technology within art history. Once a priceless flake of Renaissance paint is removed, it’s not as simple as buying new paint at Dick Blick.

Period paints start with pigments from minerals and other natural sources, which are ground and then mixed into a medium like oil or egg. Oil paintings were often varnished to seal them, and that varnish was made by grinding and processing amber.

It’s daunting enough to imagine removing these materials layer by layer, hopefully with a delicate tool rather than a solvent. Then you’re faced with mixing alizarin powder into egg yolks and praying for the best. At that point, just bring in a real professional.

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