"Restoring" Works of Art

A NEW YORK picture-dealer was recently arrested for procuring forgeries of the paintings of George Inness, Homer Martin, and others. Being a true son of our times and knowing the dilatory course of litigation, he promptly made his defense before the first reporter handy. Repudiating energetically the charge of forgery, he admitted readily that he had had certain American paintings “retouched.” It was a service that clients expected, nay required, of a merchant. To illustrate the nature of the retouching process, he described a case in point. A monochrome sketch, the mere preparation for a picture, by Alexander Wyant, passed first into the hands of a fellow artist and then into the trade. It was skillfully “retouched,” and came out a finished landscape, with Wyant’s familiar

delicacy and range of color. The widow (of the artist — not of the retoucher, who is still productive at this writing) was prevailed upon, so the story runs, to affix Wyant’s signature, a reprehensible but still a common way of dignifying sketches post mortem.1 Then, shall we say? the improved landscape became part of a well-known collection of American paintings, and brought a good price in a famous sale. For the authenticity of the anecdote I cannot vouch. What is really noteworthy about it transcends issues of veracity; the vicissitudes of this sketch seemed to a successful dealer to be merely of a usual kind, implying no reproach anywhere. It is a pretty serious consideration for all who collect, or simply love, works of art, that under the still more specious name of restoration many beautiful works in all fields of the arts are literally disappearing; or worse, the inauspicious skill of the modern restorer is coolly masquerading as the masterpieces that were.

Now, for the practical purposes of the lover of art, the distinction between the simple forger, the retoucher as defined above by an expert, and the over-zealous restorer, is pretty nearly negligible. All, with varying motives, practice a kindred deception; all present their own work as that of another and greater. A casuist may be pleased to observe that the forger deceives the public, but not himself; that the retoucher may take a certain dubious moral comfort in the substratum of genuine work under his own confections, and that the restorer, while misleading the public, may honestly deceive himself also by the flattering conviction that he has given a fine picture, if in garbled form, a new lease of life. Such considerations would justify a Dante in relegating deceased practitioners of these allied crafts to diverse profundities and altitudes of the nether or probationary afterworlds. For the connoisseur and student of the history of art such moral considerations are largely nugatory. Except for the possibility of removing repaint, it is much the same, whether a clean canvas, a slight sketch, or a much-damaged old picture, underlies the specious integument. In each and every case there has been falsification of artistic evidence, substitution of the handling of an artisan for that of the artist. The rest is merely a question of degree, and the best we can say for the chartered repainter, as compared with his subterranean colleagues, is that he openly practices what may be called an indispensable profanation for the sake of a higher good.

To this contention that old pictures must live on, John Ruskin retorted, Voltaire-like, that he did not see the necessity. Better, he insisted, that a fine work of art should be left reverently to the inevitable processes of decay. Again and again he inveighed against the vandalism that would add to, or take away from, a masterpiece. He has pointed out that in every stage of disintegration fine handicraft retains its essential beauty. Preserve it we cannot, without making it less fine; save it from such desecration we may and should, so long as one scrap of crumbling stone or pigment reveals the hand and mind of the artist. Of this doctrine, one can only say that it would be more gracious in a Premillenarian than in a believer in the persistency of the present universe. When we indulge so fairly superstitious a respect for the perishing thing of beauty, we do so at the expense of posterity. It would greatly lighten the task both of amateurs and museum officials if they might adopt, on Mr. Ruskin’s authority, the essentially Bourbon motto, après moi le deluge. Yet I doubt if the Sage of Coniston himself would have maintained the severity of his teaching had he been brought face to face with the imminent ruin of one of his favorite pictures. In fact, Tintoretto’s Paradise, about which Ruskin has written so nobly, was found a few years ago to be in rapid decay. The great canvas was giving way at many points, and it was probable that within another fifty years nothing would be left but tatters stained with dried and meaningless pigment. Advocates of the intangibility of masterpieces would have had no course open except to notify the world of the progress of dissolution, thus inciting art-lovers to pay their last respects betimes. Fortunately the city of Venice took a less sentimental view of its duty. The damaged remains of the Paradise have been transferred to another canvas which should safely bear its precious charge for centuries to come. I think that nobody will deny that this was a case of necessary repair.

In many other instances the choice is between repairing a fine object or losing it utterly. Take the many early paintings which were done in tempera on a prepared panel. In the course of time, through the warping of the wood, or, worse yet, through furnace heat or damp, the thin film of plaster upon which such a picture was painted begins to crack and come away. Minor damage of this sort may be arrested by simple means, but if the chalky preparation is generally loosened, the picture must be transferred from wood to canvas or be lost. The process of transfer is a delicate and often a disastrous one. The question, then, becomes simply, Is it better to have a fine thing damaged, or not to have it at all ? Between two visits to a hillside oratory near Florence, I witnessed the actual disintegration of a fine Lorenzo Monaco. At the first visit the picture, a Crucifixion, was apparently in fair shape, though a close inspection revealed the long and deep fissures that bespeak inner decay. On our return a few weeks later two palms’ breadth of the paint had scaled away, leaving more scar than picture, and on the stone pavement lay the curling fragments of what had been an exquisite bit of tempera enamel. And this is only a sensational example of the end in store for all paintings that are sufficiently let alone. Oil paintings have their peculiar and wasting maladies, upon which doleful topic I need not now dwell.

With many other works of art the case is the same: we must keep them in repair or lose them. Pottery of all sorts is more readily broken when already damaged or incomplete. Fissured wood-carving is more exposed to changes of temperature than to warp and worms that consume. Even slight fractures in marble offer a way to disintegrating frost and rain. To multiply examples is needless. Moreover, many objects of art fortunately remain still in use in the places for which they were originally contrived. One cannot apply the doctrine of laisser-faire, for example, to tapestries that have begun to ravel and yield, to fine rugs trodden or burned through in spots, to stained glass that is beginning to admit wind and weather. Furniture too must be kept in a condition to support a sitter, metal in service must be cleaned even at the risk of destroying a patina. Unless we are prepared to send all crippled works of art forthwith to the lazar-house — and there are those who rightly dread more than neglect the surgery practiced in art museums — we must be willing to tolerate a common-sense amount of repair.

And repair often involves restoration, I hasten to add, for the impatient reader who will be calling me back to my subject. In many cases something must be added in order to preserve that which remains of the original work. The nature of that something is the real point at issue. The word restoration, to a genuine lover of art the most offensive in the language, implies that this added something is to be precisely like the original. The Italian word repristinare — restore to its original brilliancy — conveys an even more illomened association. And, indeed, the avowed aim of most restoration has been to make the object under repair look as if it had just come from the hand of the artist. Obviously there could be no more fatal ambition. In the first place, the original appearance of any work of art not indued with an inalterable enamel is merely matter of conjecture. The moment a restorer begins to add work of his own, which he honestly believes to be like the original, he is under strong temptation to change portions of the original material which have the defect of not harmonizing with his own additions. It is notorious, for example, that in repairing the mosaics of the Florence Baptistery, some eighty years ago, the spaces from which the glass cubes had fallen were filled with plaster and the design carried out thereon in paint. But since these patches by no means harmonized with the brilliancy of the adjoining mosaic, large portions of it also were smeared with paint. In other words, the authentic mosaic in sight was actually greatly diminished in the name of restoration, and much of the composition willfully brought down to the level of the repairs. Happily nothing was done that could not be set right, and in our own times a considerate repair has saved what was left of this beautiful ceiling. But often such devastation is irrevocable. It is known, for example, that within recent years, certain masterpieces of the Dutch genre school, in the Louvre, have been drastically cleaned. One must fear that the delicate films of colored varnish with which these pictures were finished were actually swept away by alcohol heedlessly applied. In any case, the authorities were so troubled by the raw appearance of the cleaned pictures that they ordered them to be covered once more with a yellow varnish. They replaced, that is, with a false patina the genuine patina of time. One can hardly regret that the occurrence, and the resultant criticism, left the Louvre administration in so sensitive a state of nerves that it has since declined to permit the most harmless cleaning of one or two very dirty paintings.

A most lamentable application of this vicious notion, that a picture may be restored to its original state, was made upon no less a masterpiece than Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. From an early period the master’s paint began both to fade and peel. Without repeated repair, including a certain amount of repainting, the Last Supper would long ago have been counted among lost masterpieces. On the other hand, if its custodians had been contented with simple repair, we might have had this great work in not much worse condition than the average of old mural paintings. Unhappily, in the year 1726, the artist Michelangelo Bellotti, being distressed by the faded condition of the Cenacolo, offered the monks a recipe “of an oily nature” by the application of which the colors might be revived. The monks not only permitted the heinous experiment, but were so delighted with the results that they groomed the picture once a year thereafter. When Mr. Edmund Rolfe, of Heacham Hall, Norfolk, took notes in Milan, in 1761, the annual unction, being still in force, had been perpetrated no less than thirty-five times. To this brazen sacrilege, rather than to the bad methods of Leonardo, or the ravages of time and damp, we doubtless owe the present vanishing condition of the most famous painting of the Renaissance.

Such examples show the absolutely disastrous effect of following, in repair or restoration, that purely phantom thing, the original appearance. I repeat that the word restoration has done infinite harm. If at all times those artisans who bear the proud title of restorers, and affect the mystery of miracle-workers, had been forced to accept the humble and accurate designation of repairers, or, say, picture-tinkers, their work might have been kept within useful limits. As it is, we have had to do for generations with an excited professional pride that burns to wreak itself upon the unprotected masterpieces of old time. If museum directors would publish their diaries, the list of applications from incompetents, or almost worse, from famous art-doctors, would be appalling. It is said rather cynically that the surgical faculty must have cases, and that under statistical scrutiny clinical records would show a far higher percentage of operations than, say, a similar number of cases of equal gravity in private practice. Upon such statistics, lay opinion is evidently of no weight. But I may safely say that no young house surgeon is more resigned to the appearance of a rare and interesting lesion in a patient, than the average professional restorer to those symptoms that condemn a noted picture to his manipulation.

Of course no profession has a monopoly of self-seeking at others’ expense. One reads even of critics who have had such foibles. The gentlemanly blackmail, for example, that Continental art criticism levies upon the living artist, is morally as indefensible as the worst ministrations of the quacks to whom infirm works of art are so often committed. Yet, since the whole community, and posterity as well, suffer especially and irretrievably from the undue pretensions of the restorer, we do well to choose him for especial condemnation. How far the mania may go, can he imagined from the fact that archæologists, not mere restorers, mind you, have actually endeavored to rebuild historic structures, not as they were, but as in the opinion of current science they ought to have been. In France and England particularly, in the name of style, a uniformity that was not even dreamed of by the Middle Ages themselves has been imposed upon mediæval buildings. Beautiful old work, because it was not “of the period,” forsooth, has been ruthlessly replaced by modern copies out of the books. It would be interesting to know if the archæology of centuries to come will rejoice in these regularized Romanesque and Gothic monuments — will welcome the abundance of sculptured stone that is of no period at all, being the attempt of nineteenth-century scholars and artisans to facsimile that which is really inimitable.

One may well leave these pedants, who would set right not merely their own, but all past ages, to the irony of Anatole France and the forthright anathema of Ruskin. It is enough to have shown that the worst enemies of art are frequently those who are reckoned, and even paid, to be its friends and faithful custodians. I need hardly argue that no intrinsically beautiful thing, be it old repair or addition to a fine work of art, should be destroyed except to reveal thereby a still finer thing. The splendid frames with which the Renaissance adorned so many Gothic altarpieces are a part of their history. Who are we that we should substitute our own false Gothic for the pious and genuine homage of a more artistic age than ours ? Even old repaint when of a certain age and quality should, it seems to me, be let alone. Why should we care to efface the architectural background which Lorenzo di Credi added to a panel of Fra Angelico ? Did the Munich Gallery really do Dürer, or us, a service when it wiped out of the panels depicting the Paumgartner brothers, the helmets, horses, and landscapes added by Fisscher ? 2

These cases of early repaint with a kind of artistic value of its own call for a delicate and liberal exercise of judgment. Each question must be settled on its own merits. Yet the general principle holds, that additions which constitute a part of the history of the object, being the homage of a later to an earlier artist, should usually be respected. They, too, are a part of that human record which we call art. Being spontaneous, they are on a very different basis from the work of the professional restorer. Only a foolishly pedantic collector, for example, would remove the settings which the goldsmiths of the English and French sovereigns added, incongruously if you will, to splendid Chinese porcelains. In short, the right appraisal of these matters requires a keen sense of intrinsic values, and a disposition to prefer to the assertion of our own connoisseurship the preservation of any even humble product of the past. When one recalls the havoc that has been wrought in England, merely that each cathedral might sit squarely into its presumed class as “pure” Early English, Decorated, or what not, one marvels that no apostle of consistency has contrived to do away with that unpardonable accretion to Westminster Abbey, Henry the Seventh’s Chapel.

So far we have taken our subject in the spirit of denial, and I think we are agreed that works of art may and should be repaired to keep them from impending or eventual deterioration, but should not be restored in the spirit of renovation. We have suggested, too, that repairs, in the interest of sincerity, should look not like but unlike the original texture to which they are applied. Although this seems to me self-evident, a mere vindication of the right of the observer to know whose work he is inspecting, it will be a startling notion to practically all restorers and to many collectors and museum officials. In all time past the effort has been to conceal the fact of restoration. If a more rational practice has gradually made its way, the reform has been forced by the inconvenience of the system of dissimulation to students. In the field of sculpture, for example, it has become usual to exhibit incomplete statues as such, and when restorations must be made to use another stone. I cannot forget that in our own times the Hermes of Praxiteles has been set upon a nondescript pair of shanks, — “made in Germany,” I believe,—but at least the sacrilege has been noted and condemned. Repairs upon potteries and porcelains are now usually made on the sensible plan of leaving the addition visible. This is partly due to the fact that these textures and colors are virtually inimitable, perhaps more to the feeling that only students, for whom a cheap and ostensible repair suffices, deal with such objects. Broadly speaking, the principle of frank repair is gaining ground and seems likely to prevail, except in the case of painting. There ancient darkness is only beginning to yield to light. To show strikingly the case against old-style restoration, let me take — and it shall be absolutely the last of the horrible examples — a very recent instance, where a modern picture in premature decrepitude was most skillfully rejuvenated.

It is not generally known that Meissonier’s alleged masterpiece, Friedland 1807, passed from the Hilton estate to the Metropolitan Museum in a fairly ruinous condition. Whether it had been successively overpainted upon the wet pigment, or had merely hung above a steam-radiator, whatever the cause, the originally sleek surface of the picture resembled the sun-dried bottom of a drained pond. Deep cracks cut it up into sections about the size of a dime. And it was not merely a question of looks, for without repair these isolated fragments would have gradually fallen away. The thoroughness of the restoration that ensued may be divined from the fact that it is now practically impossible to tell where this cobweb of deep cracks lay upon the picture. Through the courtesy of the restorer, I have seen photographs of portions of the surface before the restoration, and I may estimate that something between a tenth and a twentieth of the visible paint has been added since the picture came into the Museum. Now, one need not grieve unduly over the incident. If such a tour de force were to be perpetrated, better it were done upon the relatively neutral and unsympathetic surface of a Meissonier than, say, upon that of an Alfred Stevens. Certainly the last thought in my mind is to blame my friend, the late assistant director of the Metropolitan Museum, for acting conscientiously under the traditions of his profession. Not personalities, but principle, are in question. In fact, I cite the case only because it suggests so strikingly the fundamental difference between deceptive restoration and the frank repair here advocated. Restored, the Friedland looks like a picture fresh from the easel — a pious deception, that is, has been practiced upon the public; repaired, it would look like a picture that had been badly cracked. The network would be filled with an unobtrusive tone that would prevent further deterioration of the surface, and while diminishing the unsightliness of the damage, would show plainly through what vicissitudes the picture had passed.

Repairs upon works of art, in a word, should neither be so unlike the original surface as to be offensive, nor yet so like as to be deceptive. This, it seems to me, should be almost the golden rule for every custodian of the art of the past.

What seems to me ideal repair is exemplified in the noble frescoes of Piero della Francesca, at Arezzo. Take the most famous, the Battle of Constantine. Large portions of the plaster had come away. One saw headless riders, horses in widely separated sections, helmets above bodies which had disappeared. There was every temptation to restore the composition radically, replacing all the missing parts. This, in fact, has been done to about half the important mural paintings of Italy, to the great confusion of the evidence. Instead, the repairer of this masterpiece in San Francesco cautiously cleaned the painting, and filled the gaps with tinted plaster. Thus he arrested the crumbling of the pictured wall, but left Piero’s finest composition honestly for what it is — a magnificent fragment. It was a service only second to that of the donor, who commissioned the paintings more than four hundred years ago.

We should examine this case of considerate repair very carefully, for it may suggest principles that should govern quite different cases. Let us admit that, in a composition without the sweep and movement of this famous battle-piece, the big blotches of plaster might seem intolerably ugly. Pietro’s battle refuses to be damped or confused by any amount of patchwork that many another picture could not bear. Well, the thing then would be to adjust the tone of the repairs more delicately to that of the adjoining original color. Or it might even be that a certain amount of actual restoration, as a last resource, might be advisable. Evidently the cavalier methods appropriate to a fresco should not be applied to a tiny easel picture of the Dutch school. In every case where mere repair becomes so ugly as to prevent the enjoyment of a work of art, we must have recourse to a degree of restoration, but again to a restoration that frankly avows its true character. We repair a work of art, let me repeat, for purely utilitarian reasons, to save it from being lost. But at a certain point æsthetic considerations may fairly compel us to combine repair with a cautious restoration. Both are tolerable only as they are evident; and since both are blemishes, they are admissible only in view of some contravening advantage. In broken pottery, for instance, the loss of continuity of form is so unpleasant that we must usually, even where repair is not otherwise urgent, carry out the original form of the vase, completing perhaps a pattern inexplicable in the fragmentary condition. On the same principle, a picture may not remain defective beyond a certain point. An art critic once had in his temporary possession a Madonna and Child, covered with very dark varnish, besides much dirt. The investigation he had undertaken required a careful preliminary cleaning of the panel. But, alas, the rag that thinned the dirt removed also the face of the Child — a recent and miserably executed restoration. Just what the critic did to revive the massacred innocent the story does not tell, but I think it rather obvious that in such a case repainting is defensible. Or take the case in a less complicated form. We know that the Leda of Correggio was decapitated by a fanatical prince. I think the severest purist would not accept above that beautiful body merely the patch of blank canvas required to stay the damage. Nor do I think it ill done that the restored head is Correggiesque. The requirement of sincerity would have been satisfied by leaving it evident that the head was painted, not on the original canvas, but on a patch, and this might have been done without real detriment to the effect of this most lovely composition.

In every case we must depend on the tact and taste of the restorer, or better, of the owner or trustee of the work of art. The great safeguard will always be the habit of letting the added work be seen and judged on its merits. What seems to me a peculiarly judicious restoration is found in the fresco by Piero della Francesca, which we have already considered. It has been noted how the bare plaster cuts the forms of horses and riders without any real diminution of the impressiveness of the work. But there was in the centre of the composition a bit of river landscape which originally led the eye far back to a low horizon. Here the river was arrested in midcourse by a great scar, and most of the horizon had disappeared. The crumbling of the same stretch of plaster had carried away the central portion of a tree, leaving an unsightly gap between the fork and the crown. Here the damage had destroyed an effect of depth, disguising the obvious intention of the artist. So the restorer drew in the missing horizon, indicated the upper course of the river, and roughly connected the parted sections of the tree. He prudently made no attempt to imitate the matchless bit of remaining landscape foreground. His work is so sketchy that it could never for a moment be mistaken for a bit of the original. But it is enough to open up the vista, and relieve the imagination from the malaise of following up a river only to run aground on raw plaster.

At first blush, this practice of showing restorations candidly will be abhorrent to the profession. For many generations restorers have been encouraged to pride themselves upon their facility in aping the manner of the great masters. The result is that we to-day can rarely say Titian, for example, but Titian cum X, Y, Z, according to the number of posthumous collaborators posterity has imposed upon him. The reform, which has already included many categories of objects of art, will be extended to painting only when collectors and museum officials shake off the dilettantism which prefers doctored pictures to those that have been honestly put in order. Professional restorers, however, need not fear that their craft will thereby cease to be a delicate one. As a matter of fact, more rather than less will be required of them. To minimize repaint, to contrive that it shall be seen on scrutiny and yet remain inoffensive, this is a task not less difficult than to pretend to paint like Velasquez or Rem brandt. If any one thinks it is easier to repaint freely than to stay one’s hand, let him consult that peerless repairer and restorer of old pictures, Cavaliere Cavenaghi of Milan. Under the new dispensation, as under the old, the restoration of painting of any precious quality would require the most sensitive care. So far as color is concerned, I take it a restorer of the future would work — upon the smaller and more delicate pictures, I mean—quite in the manner of the artist restorer of to-day. The difference would appear chiefly at the end of the task. Whereas the old-style restorer seeks, by imitating the precise texture of the original, to dissimulate his additions, the new-style restorer will, by leaving precisely these subtle differences of texture, denote his work candidly. A greater difference, one not of procedure but of spirit, may be the fact that the future restorer will eschew the name as eagerly as certain learned professors do their academic designations. He will style himself proudly a repairer, will regard restoration as a last deplorable resource, and will restore grudgingly one work of art, where a hundred are cheerfully rehandled to-day.

Who is to produce this ideally conscientious artisan ? Who is to take the subject of preserving works of art out of the witches’ kitchen, in which it lurks to-day, into the light of common prudence and common sense, and, I may add, common honesty? Evidently we can count little upon the dealers, who will continue to find their account in selling sleekly repainted wraiths of fine pictures and cobbled treasures of all sorts. Collectors and museum officials, however, among whom a disinterested love of art surely should prevail, not to mention a reverence for antiquity, and a bent for sincerity, might carry this reform almost single-handed. Much, too, might be done by a kind of consensus of artists and art-lovers. But such a public opinion must first become intelligent to be of much avail. So long as we find so many real enthusiasts, both artists and laymen, who, with a fairly Ruskinian obscurantism, oppose reasonable repair and cleaning of their favorite works of art, little effective influence can be brought to bear from that quarter. We must trust, in this as in similar forms of education, to a gradual diffusion of sound information and doctrine on the subject. Are not the directors and curators of our museums our natural leaders in this matter, and could they do a better service than to put on record the principles of repair and restoration which prevail in their several institutions ? From the mere comparison of practice and principle much good would come.

Mystery has been the bane of the subject in the past: it has caused, or at least permitted, the ruin of countless works of art by those who were solemnly appointed to be their custodians. Who could more gracefully break this unhappy tradition of silence than those who are the trustees of our artistic patrimony ? Most of the museums publish bulletins. Why not include in these journals, as matter of current news, the more important restorations and repairs ? Now this is done spasmodically by way of defending an official under attack, or of smoking out an esteemed colleague who is thought to have done amiss. If it were done regularly and dispassionately, it would constitute an effective means of education in a neglected but surely important branch of the history and appreciation of art.

As for the restorers, we ask of them simply a more sparing use of the hand and a more generous and constant employment of the head and heart. Their most useful and honorable profession can only gain in repute through such a change. A sensible patient willingly pays a great physician, in order not to be dosed or sent incontinently to the latest invalid’s paradise; and a wise collector prefers to pay rather for what the repairer leaves undone than for what he does. It is for this reason that masterpieces from every land pour into Cavaliere Cavenaghi’s studio. What he does is sufficiently remarkable, but his great and deserved reputation is based quite as much on what one is sure he could never do. The repairers of ancient buildings frequently record their services in memorial tablets, where may be read in varying phrase, usually in stately Latin, that such an one “restored,” “rebuilt,” “adorned,” with many another ambitious word. More rarely one finds simply the homely verb consolidavit — “he made it firm.” The conscientious repairer of works of art could ask for no greater prestige than to write consolidavit, with his initials, on every beautiful object that passes through his reverent hands.

  1. Many of the studio sketches of the late George Inness, which were sold at auction a few years ago, bore a palpable imitation of his signature which had presumably been affixed by authority of his executors.
  2. Note that the beauty of Dürer’s enamel had been hopelessly impaired between the old repainting and the modern skinning. With Fisscher’s additions the pictures were, if less Düreresque, actually finer works of art than they are now, as technically restored to their original condition. In many cases old repaint, even when it involves some travesty of the real design, may be preferable, not merely to modern repaint, but even to a marred original surface which cannot be uncovered without further injury. It may well be counted a shame to have repainted a picture in the first instance, but it may be even more foolish and less pardonable to make a had job worse by drastic cleaning.