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Conserving Velázquez's Portrait of Philip IV

Michael Gallagher, a top art conservator, restores Velazquez's portrait of King Philip IV of Spain. He removes old, discolored varnish, revealing the artist's original colors and brushwork. The painting's history, changes, and Velazquez's technique are explored. The restoration process is fully documented and reversible.

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Video transcript

- I'm Michael Gallagher. I'm Sherman Fairchild conservator in charge of the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Frick Collection has had a very long and fruitful association with the Painting Conservation Department at the museum. When I took up my position in October 2005, it was very much something I wanted to continue and looked forward to exploring. Probably a few months into that post, I walked through the galleries of the Frick with chief curator Colin Bailey and we discussed the condition of the paintings. In part just enjoying the sheer riches of the collection, and in part looking whether there were pictures that might benefit from conservation treatment. One of those pictures that we discussed at length was Velzquez's magnificent portrait of King Philip IV of Spain, sometimes known as the Fraga Philip. The reason we were discussing the picture was because it was self-evident that the painting was to a degree obscured by discolored varnish. It's not always easy to tell how much a varnish that has oxidized has changed, has darkened, is distorting a picture. I was very conscious of not wanting to simply bring this painting in for treatment if it wasn't strictly necessary. No conservator in their right mind would not be excited by having a picture as wonderful as this in the studio for a time, but that isn't what this profession is about. The whole reason for doing a treatment is to regain the artist's intention. If we cut to quite a few years later, the painting actually did come to the studio. I thought I would examine it, I would see how discolored the varnish was. I knew that the last time it had been treated, and by treated I mean that an old varnish had been removed and restoration had been completed on any damages, was 1947 by William Suhr. William Suhr was a very distinguished conservator who worked on a number of the pictures from the Frick Collection. He left very thorough records of the work he did including a lot of photo documentation. In his documentation he reports that he worked on the painting in 1947. Then in 1970, there is a problem. He blames it on idiosyncrasies with the air-conditioning system, but the varnish on the painting clearly had bloomed or blanched. It had become slightly opaque. So, he did a treatment with wax and more varnish. That told me that there was quite a considerable layer of varnish on the picture, and that was confirmed by initial cleaning tests. A discolored varnish does two things really. If you think of it as a discolored milky layer, so, on one side it distorts the color palette of the painting, and that happens differentially. It will have a big impact on pale colors, colors in a blue or purplish range. It won't have such a big impact on say, reds and yellows. An oxidized varnish is broken down, it's a crystalline structure, and so you get a milky haze over the picture so darks appear lighter. If you think of dust on top of a black surface when you draw your finger through it, you lose the tonal variations of the picture. Those two things, a distortion of the color and a distortion of the tone, can really have an enormous impact on the effects created in a painting. Of course, here we're talking not about any painting, we're talking about one of the greatest craftsmen in terms of the manipulation of paint that ever lived. Those subtleties, those subtleties of tone and color are absolutely essential to the work in question. One of the areas you can see the distortion of the varnish for the recent treatment is in the forehead of Philip where the discolored brownish varnish pools in the texture of the paint creating spurious effects, as it were, and a very patchy unpleasant look. I first started to remove the varnish from the right-hand side of the painting. The image here is partway through cleaning. The varnish has been removed from the sleeve. It's rather difficult to see when you look at the whole picture, but if you look at a detail there is a clear line through the middle of the image. On the left-hand side the old varnish is still in place. On the right-hand side it has been removed. I think what's interesting here on the sleeve is to see the way that discolored layer hides effects that Velazquez intended to read for the viewer. If you look at the elbow, he uses a rather translucent gray-brown to model the satin of the sleeve to create shadows. Were that varnish layer, which is a similar color, sits on top of it, you totally lose that effect. The same distortion can be seen in the collar. The varnish has a brown, grubby appearance over on the left-hand side. Where it's been removed, you really sense the brushwork. There has been some change. The paint as it ages becomes slightly more transparent, so the certain dark brush marks underneath the layer we see that show through more now, but there is a clarity to the vigor with which Velzquez has applied the paint. In looking at the painting after cleaning, what is interesting to me, is what extraordinary condition it is in. I wish every picture that I worked on was in this condition. There is a couple of minor scratches, a tiny little loss in the hat, and just above it, and then on the sides, on each side there is a line of loss. That's to do with where at some point in the picture's history part of it was turned round a stretcher and then it was nailed, believe it or not, and at a later date that was turned back to be part of the picture. That's where the most loss has taken place, but otherwise it's really in incredible condition. After cleaning, the next stage is to apply a first varnish. The varnish has two roles: one is, and in a sense, it's most important role is an optical one. It starts to saturate the paint surface so that you get the full range of color and tone that the artist intended. It also acts as an isolating layer between the original painting and any retouching that has to be done on damages. When we see the picture after cleaning, with the surface properly saturated, you really read the richness of the colors, the forms. The costume works far more in space. Previously there was a sense that Philip was stood in about 10 inches of space behind him in a wall. Now the picture opens up in a way where that space behind feels more infinite, which is very typical of the effects the artist used in portraits. One of the important things to remember about the work we do is that everything is recorded, both in written and photographic form, before treatment, after cleaning, after restoration. All the materials we use are recorded. The governing principle really of any restoration is that it has to be as stable as possible, and most importantly, completely reversible, so that if someone were to come along tomorrow or in 200 years, they could remove any retouching or any varnish I've applied very, very easily without endangering the paint film. One of the privileges of working closely with the great work of art is that a degree of detective work can take place and we can see into the creative process how the artist started to think about the composition, changes that were made. In Velazquez's King Philip IV of Spain, there are a number of key, what we call pentimenti, changes of mind. One of the most important ones is in the hat that Philip holds in his proper left hand. Initially this was painted to be, I think, more across the body. Certainly the shape was rather different. Even now, in natural light, you can see a sort of ghost image of the previous position of the hat. This is particularly evident using means like X-radiography or infrared reflectography that we have access to at the museum. Velazquez moved the hat from where it was slightly obliquely across the body to a much more frontal position as you look at the picture. To my mind, it's a less natural position. It feels slightly artificial, but it works beautifully compositionally and it gives a certain iconic quality to the image of the king. There's nothing natural or relaxed about that pose. It is intended to communicate kingly power. The change in the position of the hat necessitated a number of other revisions. The hand had to be raised and moved slightly to the left, and it now overlaps onto an area where the buckskin undercoat, that slightly yellowish garment the king is wearing under the splendid rose-colored robe. The hand overlaps onto that slightly. You do get a somewhat incongruous jump between two-thirds of the hand, which have a slightly grayish color, where Velazquez started to paint the hand on a darker underlayer, and then when he made the change, raised the hand, moved it over, the left-hand side overlaps onto this buckskin jerkin and so appears lighter. That's a change that is natural to the aging of the painting and it is not one that we would try to change, it's just a part of the picture's history. He also changed the contour of the coat, he slightly altered the sword, and again, some of these can be perceived just with the naked eye. There is a chance that some of these changes were made because the king shifted position. We know an extraordinary amount about the circumstances of the painting. For example, that it was completed in three sittings, which is really quite extraordinary. I think generally the feeling is that these revisions were far more to do with creating an effective composition and in communicating the political aims of the portrait. One aspect that was revealed during examination was that at some point in the picture's history it was extended, at least on the left and right, possibly also top and bottom. Canvas additions were probably sewn onto the edges. Then a reddish ground, that's the preparatory paint layer that is put on the canvas, was spread into-- actually parts of it was spread into the original painting. Those additions were taken off at a later date, then probably at that point, the original perimeter sides of the canvas were used as a tacking edge. Again, at a later date, they were turned back out, so there was this interesting changes in dimension. Not so unusual in general, and particularly with the artist. He was known to alter his own paintings, but in this case, it was probably much more alterations to do with taste, and even possibly convenience in terms of a particular hang or working with another painting or working within another frame. The X-ray image does provide us with information, but it is not as clear as many X-rays you might see and that's because at this point in his career Velazquez was using a ground. That is the paint layer the artist first puts over the entire canvas to prepare it for the painting that's to come. The ground he was using at this point in the 1640s had a high lead-white content. It was in fact a mid-gray color. But the lead-white content blocks the X-ray and the ground was applied usually with a painting knife, and you get these slightly arching movements where it's been spread onto and into the canvas weave. It makes for a quite a uniform image that is difficult to read. You do see the current stretcher, which appears lighter. You see the side bars and the cross, vertical and horizontal in the middle. There's also traces of the original strainer. You can see a dark line running particularly along the top and at the sides and then two dark parallel lines just below center which were the position of the original, rather narrow strainer that the canvas would have been stretched on. Velazquez has a dazzling painting technique. He's a great favorite of most painting conservators because it's just a pure pleasure to look at this amazing facility. And it's an amazing facility combined with insight, with sensitivity and a cool objectivity, but not a heartless one. His paintings for the king are very particular. They're court portraiture. The most finished area of the painting is the face. Here the brushwork is relatively blended to create this very smooth and polished transitions between the various tones and forms. Elsewhere the picture has a really quite startling abbreviation. He built up his paint layers over a gray ground. The gray ground is the first preparatory layer put over the canvas. This would have given him a mid tone, and he exploits that to some degree. Interestingly, he doesn't use it in the coat. The gray tones that we see in the coat are actually an additional paint layer. It's very difficult to see from the floor in the gallery, but there are areas where you can see the junction between paint layers. You can see the original ground layer showing through, for example, between the white collar and the king's neck, or in just above the eyelid in the king's proper left eye. The paint's fluidly applied, and in many ways what is always striking with Velazquez, and this may sound misleading, but it's a simple technique. It's not a complex system of layering. He admired the Venetian artists greatly, but it's not a painting that relies on elaborate glazing techniques. It's just that using simple means he achieves dazzling effects, and he has a manipulation that is really sophisticated. So it's a limited range of pigments, a lot of the painting is done wet in wet, but there is this extraordinary eye-hand relationship that produces these amazing painterly effects. Particularly in the rich rose-colored overgarment you see these fireworks, painterly fireworks. When the painting was in the studio, Professor Jonathan Brown, the expert American Hispanist who specialized in the work of Velazquez, came to see the picture. He commented seeing it in the wonderful light in our studio, how even for Velazquez this was audacious, this level of abbreviation. It's very interesting in the context of the interpretation that Pablo Perez d'Ors has put forward that this picture had to be completed within a short period of time, because it had a very significant political role. It had to be back in Madrid. It had to be displayed on the Catalan National Day to communicate all of the complex spin that was associated with it. We know that it was painted in three days, and when you get up close to the surface it's very easy to believe. The paint is pushed, pulled, dragged across the surface in this very exciting way. In detail, it's very easy to think of New York School painters of the 1950s, so lively and courageous is the application of paint. Of course, Velazquez's gift is that though you get this wonderfully rich complex surface, there is a real feeling for paint itself and its application but it is in the service of form. With this unbelievable economy of means, we completely believe this rich silver embroidery that decorated the rose-colored garment. I think it's interesting that Philip himself embraced this type of painting when you think not many years earlier, you'd have probably been able to count every single thread. Part of the depiction would have been to emphasize the sheer luxury of the garment. This is far more to do with a painterly feeling than simply the display of privilege. One of the great pleasures I get as a painting conservator oddly enough, is when the pictures leave the studio. When they are in the studio, one frets about the problems getting the right surface, doing the right thing by the picture, and then when they leave, they regain their independence and I don't think any more about those condition issues and I hope looking at the painting no one else would. This picture actually is in remarkable condition. It's fascinating to know something of the history, the changes, the painting technique, but in the end, I think the important thing is to stand in front of a great work of art, like this, and just let it speak to you. There is a theater in that interaction that is the great pleasure of visiting a collection of top quality paintings, a collection like Fricks. - [Voiceover] You've been listening to Michael Gallagher, head of Paintings Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition focusing on Velazquez King Philip IV of Spain will be running from October 26 through to January 23, 2011. I hope this has provided some insights into why the painting was treated and Velazquez's extraordinary technique. For more information on this exhibition, please visit frick.org.