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First Things First: Commencing the Conservation of the Jabach Portrait

Michael Gallagher, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, Department of Paintings Conservation

Posted: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Juan Trujillo photographing the painting

Met photographer Juan Trujillo photographing the painting. The white rectangular patches on the picture are facing papers that were temporarily applied to the surface to protect insecure areas of paint for the work's transportation to New York. Photograph by Michael Gallagher

«I had first seen the Jabach family portrait in a warehouse in London over a year ago and loved it, but I'll admit that when it finally arrived in our paintings conservation studio at the Museum this past June, I was a bit overwhelmed—it's enormous! Fortunately, the work's current condition needs to be fully documented before conservation can begin. This not only helps a conservator understand the painting and its issues but also provides some breathing space and thinking time.»

Once Met photographer Juan Trujillo carefully recorded the front and reverse of the painting, I began to examine the layer of varnish covering the work. It's very discolored and definitely not original; it was most likely applied at either the end of the nineteenth century or the very beginning of the twentieth. A varnish is a key component of paintings from this period because it fully saturates the colors and reveals the complete tonal range, which is vital to all the pictorial effects of space and volume that the artist created. When the varnish oxidizes and severely discolors—as it did in this case—it does just the opposite, distorting and deadening the colors and substantially reducing the tonal range. That's why we take it off.

White drapery below baby Heinrich before treatment

The painting's discolored and uneven varnish is clearly evident on the white drapery below baby Heinrich (shown here before treatment). Photograph by Michael Gallagher

Following tests to establish a safe and effective way of removing the old, discolored varnish, I began the process of cleaning the work. It's extraordinarily well painted and generally in great condition, so this is very exciting and rewarding. In the following photographs, you can see how the removal of the dark, yellowed varnish reveals Heinrich's pink toes as well as Charles Le Brun's assured painting technique.

Removing the yellow varnish

Heinrich's foot before cleaning. Photograph by Michael Gallagher

Removal of the dark, yellowed varnish

Solvent, applied to the surface using a cotton swab, begins to swell and dissolve the oxidized varnish. The paint layer is unaffected. Photograph by Michael Gallagher

Removal of the dark, yellowed varnish

The swab is rolled across the surface, gradually absorbing the discolored, and now solubilized, varnish. Photograph by Michael Gallagher

Removal of the dark, yellowed varnish

The original colors begin to emerge. Photograph by Michael Gallagher

Removal of the dark, yellowed varnish

The foot and part of the ankle are now clear of varnish, revealing the rosy flesh tones against the rich orange fabric. Photograph by Michael Gallagher

I'll share more images in future posts.


  • james kelly says:

    thank you for giving us the opportunity to see this fascinating work..reading about it does not convey the same image. thanks

    Posted: July 31, 2014, 6:34 a.m.

  • Maurice Read says:

    This is fascinating--like reading a good mystery.

    Posted: July 31, 2014, 2:39 p.m.

  • Mika Matzen says:

    What type of solvent removes the varnish without affecting the paint?

    Posted: July 31, 2014, 5:32 p.m.

  • Michael Gallagher says:

    "What type of solvent removes the varnish without affecting the paint?"

    This is not an easy question to answer in a short and simple way. We use combinations of solvents that are carefully tailored to the specifics of the particular painting and varnish. These choices are based on criteria such as the age and structure of the paint film and the polarity and evaporation rate of the solvents. Above all it is informed by training and experience. I’m not going into specifics because the solvents that can be used safely on one type of painting could be totally inappropriate - and damaging - for another.

    Posted: August 1, 2014, 11:01 a.m.

  • Sarah James says:

    I love this, how beautiful! Micheal Gallagher is so talented, thanks for sharing:)

    Posted: August 1, 2014, 11:17 a.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    What a remarkable and welcome change in the viewability of the child's toes post-cleaning. What a treat that a toe is a harbinger of good in the coming months.

    One need only look to Le Brun's brilliant color sensibility by seeing the Met's newly acquired Le Brun, his "The Sacrifice of Polyxena" from 1647. His colors 'pop', particularly in contrast with the surrounding works by Poussin in the French gallery. Shall I say Poussin's color choices are comparatively more severe? Would that be correct? Perhaps the conservator could remark on the comparative uses of color by Le Brun and Poussin in the Met’s works, assuming their original colors have remained fast over more than three-and-a-half centuries.

    From a curatorial perspective, would Poussin even be capable of Le Brun’s modern-history painting? Le Brun’s work is formal but lush, lush, lush. In contrast, I have seen Poussin’s self-portrait in Berlin, and found it veers toward a severity and stoicism greater than even Velazquez’s work, for example. But what do I know? Amateurs!

    Thankfully, based on the photos shown to-date, the facing papers are affixed away from the essential areas of this massive portrait --the bodies and faces! Yay! Small mercies.

    My chief concern is how you will overcome that truly heavy fold along the top. Could they have made more nail holes?! One can't iron it, certainly. What is the plan? Is there a normal protocol for this problem? If yes, does it apply to this case?

    I can’t thank you enough, all at the Met, for showing us this wonderful exercise in preservation and care.

    Posted: August 1, 2014, 3:22 p.m.

  • Dave Britt says:

    Very interesting glimpse into the preservation process. Appreciated the "solvent" exchange.

    Posted: August 3, 2014, 8:35 a.m.

  • Michael Gallagher says:

    In response to Ted Gallagher's comments (no relative by the way!):

    I think Keith Christiansen would have more to say on the Poussin/Le Brun theme. Occasionally condition issues change the appearance of Poussin's paintings, for example the increased tonal effect of the red ground in "Midas Washing at the Source of Pactolus" or the blanching of the greens in "Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun" but he simply has a different aesthetic. I often find his color choices and contrasts quite ravishing.

    As for the structural issues with the Jabach portrait, that will be the subject of future posts so please be patient!

    Posted: August 4, 2014, 1:57 p.m.

  • Keith christiansen says:

    Regarding Ted Gallagher's comments. Severe, intellectual, considered...all terms that have been used to describe Poussin's work. But of course, he had many faces and modes and his altarpiece of the Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus (Vatican) is brilliantly colored and painted with broad strokes inspired by Titian. His ceiling canvas in Paris over a decade later is also brilliantly colored--but in a different way: an example to Le Brun of how brilliant color could be combined with tight drawing and execution. But in the end Poussin chose to do relatively modest scaled pictures for an elite clientele who took painting seriously and expected erudition as well as a comment on the human condition. Le Brun--no slouch--chose the role of Painter to the King, supervising the decoration of Versailles, design of tapestries, etc. So his style naturally differed, though Poussin was always on his mind. He's brilliant, but seldom profound--except in his two grand portraits, of which the Jabach is by far the most personal and, in my book, the most astonishing. We see Le Brun 's humanity rather than his ambition. Great picture!!!

    Posted: August 6, 2014, 7:08 p.m.

  • Margaret M. Duffy says:

    I am thrilled that the Met has acquired this wonderful work by LeBrun. Years ago, as a student at the Institute of Fine Arts, I was interviewed for the museum course. One of the questions I was asked was how I would want to strengthen the collection. The area I focused on was the late 17th century in France. More was needed. This is a fabulous addition, after my own heart! (I was accepted into the program, incidentally, but alas circumstances barred me from following up.)

    Posted: August 8, 2014, 2:34 a.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    I look at my lacunae list (posted, above) and know that closing the gaps one day would be a winsome moment for the Met. But price and opportunity aside, we must always keep in mind that we 'moderns' were, may one say, late to the party.

    Royals were shopping for centuries before the Met's opening in 1871 to acquire or commission the greatest masterpieces of many artists’ oeuvres. But despite this fact, despite a decapitated English king’s collection finding succor in Madrid; despite a decapitated French king’s collection, in part, finding succor in London…despite a Spanish king’s winsome strategy to corner the market on Peter Paul Rubens’s posthumous inventory for the benefit of the Patrimonio Nacional, we here in New York still have one of the greatest encyclopedic collections of European paintings in the world. Not too shabby!

    And in this age of no borders, electronically speaking, we owe it to the world to demonstrate in every way possible what New York has accomplished. To this end, I made written pleadings under both the Montebello and Campbell directorships to enhance our Web site in a seemingly practical way. I discuss my proposal, as follows:

    I proposed that the Met adopt a new feature to the museum’s Web site: Objects Relative Size Display. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge uses it to enrich its on-line visitors’ experience, particularly for international users who cannot visit the Fitzwilliams’s permanent galleries.

    The objects relative size display is designed to help visitors visualize the actual size of an object, based on its physical dimensions stored in the online catalogue, compared to:

    a person standing 1.8 meters (6 feet) high
    (for objects greater than 40 cm in height)


    an adult hand estimated at 20cm (8 inches) high
    (used for objects smaller than 40 cm in height)

    It is intended as an aid and will always only be an approximation.

    How wonderful such a feature would be to show viewers the relative monumentality of both of the Met’s Le Brun works!

    Posted: August 12, 2014, 10:47 a.m.

  • Ted Gallagher, Esq. says:

    I woke up this morning, having dreamt of going shopping with Herr Jabach and family...to buy a frame for Le Brun's masterpiece. It was only a dream, naturally.

    Cart before the horse, I know, but could you be restoring a period jewel-frame at the same time as you are a'working on the canvas?

    As an aside, how many staff, including you, are doing the Q-tipping? What is your weekly aggregate output of cleaned canvas, by square foot?

    Posted: September 10, 2014, 6:47 p.m.

  • Michael Gallagher says:

    The painting does not have a frame but we (curators and frame specialists in the department) are working on that. I'm working solo on the cleaning of the painting. Have no idea of the "aggregate output" -I don't work on it every day and different areas demand different amounts of time.

    Posted: September 11, 2014, 10:26 a.m.

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About the Author

Michael Gallagher is the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge in the Department of Paintings Conservation.

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