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How to put Monet back together again: restoration after vandalism

Tiny paint flakes from damaged work give clues to artist’s technique

Dublin

Conservators at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin have had an unusual opportunity to examine samples of the paint Monet used and to discover new details of the artist’s technique after a landscape by the French Impressionist was damaged by a visitor in 2012.

The conservation and restoration of Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, 1874—work sponsored by the French bank BNP Paribas—have revealed that Monet’s priming was a pinkish-grey, which makes the paint colours appear brighter than if they had been applied over a plain white primer. This means that Monet needed to mix less white into the paint to achieve a bright tone, enabling him to use pure colours straight from the tube. Although he often made initial charcoal sketches on the priming, no traces were found of a preparatory drawing in the work.

Major damage

The painting was damaged in June 2012, when a visitor approached the work and appeared to lunge towards the canvas. His body hit the picture just to the left of its centre, resulting in three L-shaped tears; the longest was around 25cm.

Andrew Shannon, aged 48, of Dublin, was charged with criminal damage. At his trial last December, he pleaded not guilty, saying that he had accidentally fallen against the painting while feeling ill. The jury failed to reach a verdict. A retrial is due to begin next month.

Simone Mancini, the head conservator at the gallery, describes the tears as the result of an “incredibly violent impact”. Shortly after the incident, tiny fragments of paint were painstakingly collected, many from the gallery’s floor. Around 100 fragments were eventually recovered. Seven were so small that they could not be reattached. These were set into resin, so that the layer structure of Monet’s paint could be examined using a microscope and chemical testing.

Conservators at the gallery quickly contacted their colleagues at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where a painting by Monet was vandalised in 2007. Coincidentally, this work was another Argenteuil riverscape, also painted in 1874. The Argenteuil Bridge was punched by an intruder who broke into the museum at night.

The Dublin gallery then began work on repairing its painting. The surface was covered with protective tissue and the tacks were removed, releasing the canvas from its wooden stretcher. Then came the delicate task of repairing the tears. Using a microscope, the edges were painstakingly aligned on the reverse, thread by thread. The broken canvas fibres were joined with a strong but reversible bond.

Taking no risks

The painting was then placed face up, and the protective tissue was removed so that work could begin on the surface. Although Monet left the painting unvarnished, a glossy synthetic varnish was applied in the 20th century and this had greyed. The work would have looked better with the varnish removed, but because of the sensitivity of the pigments, particularly the bright reds and yellows, this process would have been risky. Instead, the painting was given a surface clean, which still makes the colours appear brighter and lighter, closer to those of Monet’s time.

The canvas needed further support because the tears were so extensive, so the painting had to be relined, with a reversible secondary canvas added to the back of the original.

Most of the 100 paint fragments, mainly measuring between 0.1mm and 0.3mm, were replaced on the canvas in their original sites. Remaining losses along the tears were filled with gesso and retouched with reversible watercolour paint.

The painting was then glazed and put into a climate box. The work had been on a list of the gallery’s most important works that were due to be glazed, but this had not yet been done at the time of the incident. The painting is now back on display. Further research is being conducted into the paint samples and what they reveal about the artist’s materials.

The work was bequeathed to the gallery in 1924 by the playwright Edward Martyn, who bought it in Paris in 1885. It was only the second work by Monet to come to the British Isles.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'How to put Monet back together again'