With generous support from BNP Paribas Foundation and BNP Paribas Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has restored a masterpiece in its collection of Old Masters: Interior with a Woman Playing a Virginal by Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692), a Dutch painter renowned for his interior scenes, notably churches. His paintings are characterized by their grand scale, elaborate perspective, strong sunlight and depiction of everyday activities.
In the Museum’s collection since 1894, this magnificent painting was badly damaged during an attempted theft in 1972, which resulted in two large punctures in the canvas. Restoration work was done in 1974 to stabilize the canvas, using materials and techniques that have not aged well, hence the need for major conservation work. For many years now, visitors had been unable to appreciate its true beauty.
The BNP Paribas Foundation and BNP Paribas Canada, through BNP Paribas pour l’Art, made this major restoration possible. Led by Richard Gagnier, head of the MMFA’s Conservation Department, the process, was aimed at correcting the previous restoration and took 1,450 hours to complete. It involved the removal of an overly thick layer of faded synthetic varnish, relining of the canvas, which was felt to be unstable, and replacement of the linen inserts in the punctures to create a smoother surface.
Along with this treatment, the work underwent a technical study at the Canadian Institute of Conservation in Ottawa. It was examined under various light conditions (ultraviolet, infrared and radiography) to assess the condition of the materials used and the artist’s technique. Chemical identification of the various materials was also done, along with microscopic examination of paint samples by cross-section, which revealed the layering technique.