Bust-length portrait of Napoleon in ceremonial robes
To assert his influence, Napoleon offered portraits of himself to his representatives. The portraits in ceremonial guard were set off by gilded wood frames, sumptuously adorned with typical symbols of empirical style: bees, bay leaves, and blossoms of honeysuckle, lotus and lily. Crowned by an imposing eagle overlooking the viewer, our work’s frame affirms the importance of the illustrious figure to the Empire.
In preparation for the exhibition Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace (2018), the frame needed to be restored to its original appearance. In fact, since its creation in the early 19th century, several generations of rather inadequate interventions had caused it to lose its lustre, therefore undermining its grandiloquent mission.
Before proceeding with the treatment, we conducted a preliminary probe, which led us to uncover more than 10 layers of accumulated materials – paint, lacquers, bronze paint, gesso, bole and several coats of gilding. It also revealed that the original surface was characterized by variegations in sheen. This effect was created by the juxtaposition of gilding with gold size (in the pearls, heart-leaves and inverted cavetto molding) and burnished water gilding (twists of the bay tree branches, eagle, floral ornaments, bees and flat surfaces). The restoration effort, which took the better part of over three months’ work, enabled us to clean, smooth out and clear the heavily laden surfaces to then recreate a satisfactory gilding that did justice to the carved reliefs and the complexity of gilding of that age.
The successive layers of restorations (some poorly executed) occluded the refined surface and ornaments.
The ornaments were scraped and filed down, and the flat surfaces were smoothed out. Note the white gesso (surface preparation prior to gilding).
The reworked surfaces were then coated with a base layer (coloured clay and rabbitskin glue).
The gilding of the leaves was applied to the prepared surfaces: gold size in some places, and water gilding in others.
The intense shine was removed from the new gold leaf, which was dyed to give it a more aged look.
The refined definition of the plumage was buried under the accumulated layers of varied materials used in past interventions.
The eagle’s feet before removal of the accumulated materials.
A detail on the feet shows the refinement (right) revealed after removal of the excess material (left).
Scraping and cleaning of excess layers reveal a more delicate and nuanced sculpture.
Losses were filled in and prepared with a new base layer.
A new layer of gold leaf is applied to the prepared areas. The newly applied gold is very bright and shiny.
A slight stressing and delicate patina effectively blend the new finish in with the natural aging of the original.
Surface detail after integration treatment
The eagle after treatment was completed
The hollowed out circumference needed to be touched up to improve the clarity of the ornaments. Here, the prepared surface was coated with a base layer before applying the gold leaf.
A bee during regilding
Bees before and after regilding
The surface of the torso with its patina blending treatment.
The layers of interventions reveal four (three, excluding the original gold coat) successive treatments, some of poor quality. Note how the accumulation of materials affected the crispness of the heart lines.
We found following layers laid over the original gilding. In chronological order: a second coat of gold leaf applied to the gold size, shellac, patina, red ochre paint (of undetermined nature), bronze paint (bronze powder mixed with linseed oil), gesso, bole, shellac, another layer of gold leaf applied to the gold size, and patina.
This Chippendale-style Chinese frame was made in the 18th century, in the time of King George III, for the flourishing market of middle-class English collectors. These art lovers were as avid for this style of frame (prized by aristocrats) as they were for the highly fashionable Chinese art itself. To meet a growing demand for less expensive imitation luxury items, Chinese craftsmen worked quickly with affordable materials.
The frame enclosing our mirror was in fairly good condition when we acquired it, but its stability was compromised by a wide and deep fissure that cut across nearly the entire length of the upper portion. Despite a previous restoration, the crack was quite visible and was weakening the structure. Among other things, an excess of glossy glue had spilled over the fissure, spoiling the surface’s otherwise smooth and delicate appearance. Other flaws were noted, such as a loss of ornaments and the detachment of assemblages. We therefore needed to reinforce the weakened areas, ensure the integrity of the ornaments and make the surfaces uniform before exhibiting the work.
Visitors can now admire the painted mirror and its restored frame in the Asian art galleries of the Stephan Crétier and Stéphany Maillery Wing for the Arts of One World.
Long, deep fissures cut across nearly the entire upper portion. Previously, they had been filled in with araldite. An excess of glue had spilled over the cracks, covering the gilding with a thick, glossy material.
The old adhesive was removed and replaced with wood inserts and injections of acrylic glue.
After the repairs, the surface of the fissures was filled in with pigmented wax and then finished with gold leaf.
The wood assemblages were becoming detached in places, weakened by years of handling and shipment.
Adhesive was injected into the openings. The ornaments were then held in place with clamps to secure them firmly.
The fissure after regilding and patination.
Another example of reinforcement and filling of a large crack using wood inserts and injections of glue.
Gold leaf filling and patinated finishing.
Note the coloured wax filling, which imitates the original bole.
The filling is gold leaf. It was dyed to blend in with the rest of the frame.
The upper fissure extended the entire thickness of the wood and needed to be reinforced. Insertions of wood and wood putty solidified the structure.
In order to reinforce the cracks, natural glue was pasted onto strips of linen, which were then laid over the areas that were filled with wood.
A base layer (animal glue and clay) was applied over the repairs to blend the treatments in with the rest of the frame.
A few examples of works restored
Kensett was among the most celebrated of the second generation of painters of the Hudson River School. Formed in the mid-nineteenth century and widely regarded as the first truly American school of painting, the group turned to the native landscape, particularly the areas around the Hudson River in New York, for inspiration.
Major restoration work was carried out on the frame of this work—the original one—by adding an outer moulding in order to complete what was actually only an elaborate mat. The fragmented ornamentation was redone and the gilding and patina restored in order to give the frame’s surface a harmonious finish. The painting thus regained its full nobility.
John Frederick Kensett, On the Hudson, 1855, oil on canvas, 154.3 x 119.7 cm. MMFA, gift of the family of Dr. F. Wolferstan Thomas
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