By Christianna Bonin, student in the Clark/Williams
Graduate Program in the History of Art
When I look at a painting hanging in a museum, I usually glance at the wall label next to it. This label is intended to provide me with general information necessary for placing the painting in context: the artist’s name and the date of its creation. As I have encountered in my seminar on Dürer, however, the apparent simplicity of this information belies the complex research that goes into determining it.
Many paintings, particularly those dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, have suffered due to poor storage conditions, lengthy shipments, and even war and theft. Only in recent decades has technology allowed art professionals to examine paintings with near-scientific exactitude and discover parts of a painting that may have been damaged and repaired many centuries earlier. In combination with historical research, these new technologies allows us to look at objects with a greater understanding of their pasts; we can literally see what the paintings have endured.
One such painting is Dürer’s The Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506), from the collection of the National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic. If the Clark’s exhibition sparks your interest in Dürer, the path of this painting would be worth following.
Throughout the past decade, an international group of art historians, curators, and conservators have discussed the painting’s problematic state of conservation. Infrared reflectography, a process developed in the 1960s to look through paint layers, revealed that the painting lost a large portion of its original painted surface before the 1840s—much of which was repainted between 1839 and 1841 by artist Johann Gruss.
According to copies made of the painting in the 1500s, Dürer’s own underdrawing beneath the painted surface, and other historical writings describing the painting, Gruss’s restoration was extensive. In fact, he even appears to have left out a few details that Dürer originally included. Because Gruss’s restoration is now in need of further repair, the interdisciplinary team of experts is debating the best course of action.
What do you think? Should conservators attempt to reconstruct the original Dürer painting, removing the elements added by Gruss in the nineteenth century, and reinserting those he omitted? Or, given the extreme difficulty of such a task, would it be better for conservators to conserve the painting as it is today—even if the way it looks now is not entirely as Dürer painted it in 1506?
Olga Kotkova, curator at the National Gallery in Prague, has written a detailed account of the painting’s history and outlined these issues in her article “The Feast of the Rose Garlands: What Remains of Dürer.”* Click here to read Kotkova’s fascinating article, and consider for yourself the vexed questions that art professionals encounter.
Interested in learning more about conservation? Don’t miss this spring lecture by David Bull, Senior Consultant, Painting Conservation Department, National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C., and Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation.
* “The Feast of the Rose Garlands: What Remains of Dürer,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 144, No. 1186 (January 2002).