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Painting Conservation


Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter

image attributed to Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594—1651) Portrait of Abel 7asman, his wife and daughter c. 1637 oil on canvas 106.7 x 132.1cm after treatment

Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter c.1637 oil on canvas, On loan to the National Gallery of Australia from the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia, Canberra more detail

Renewing an acquaintance with the Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter I first saw the painting in 1972 at the National Library of Australia where I was a new Assistant Conservator, having recently graduated from Bill Boustead's cadet restorer program at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Although Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter, with its discoloured varnish, was noted at the time as being worthy of conservation treatment, work priorities developed in other directions and the painting remained in its deteriorated state except for the addition of a thin synthetic polymer varnish in 1976. I left the National Library in 1974 to follow a conservation career in other organisations, including the then Australian National Gallery between 1982 and 1984. On rejoining the Gallery in 1999, I renewed my acquaintance with the painting. In the intervening years Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter had left the National Library on long term loan to the Gallery, where it is exhibited with other paintings depicting exploration of the South Pacific and colonial Australia . This time the opportunity to work on it was not something I was going to forsake. Approval to remove the discoloured varnish and undertake further treatment was sought from National Gallery curators as well as Pictorial and Conservation staff at the National Library. In November 1999 I commenced my pre-treatment examination and documentation of the painting.

Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wft and daughter has great historical significance. It shows the Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman, his second wife, Janetjie Tjaers, whom he married in 1631, and Claesgen, his daughter by his first marriage - his first wife, Claesjie Heyndricks, had died leaving Tasman a single parent. Two years after his second marriage Tasman shipped to Batavia ( Indonesia ) and, in 1634, he was in command of a yacht trading on general East Indian service. In 1636 he visited Holland but returned to Batavia in 1638 with his wife and child - the Portrait ofAbel Thsman, his wife and daughter was painted during Tasman's visit to Holland .

Structural damage indicates that the painting has experienced some travel. Although I could find no record of its movements after the work was completed in 1637, it would not have been unusual to see the painting joining the Tasman family's goods leaving Amsterdam for Batavia on 15 April 1638, and it probably remained in Batavia until Tasman's death in 1659. His widow married Jan Meynderts Springer on 6 February 1661. In the 17th century many Dutch families emigrated to Yorkshire where the wool industry was rapidly expanding. Jan Meynderts Springer undoubtedly had some connections with these families as the Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter is next heard of in Yorkshire . In 1877 it was sold at Christie's by Robert Springer of Bradford , and remained in the hands of the unrecorded purchaser until 1941 when it was purchased by Rex Nan Kivell and ultimately entered the collection of the National Library of Australia.

Prior to any conservation treatment, a work of art is examined to determine its structure and condition. It is not unusual for old paintings to have characteristic damages that provide clues to an understanding of their history. Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter has numerous cracks and losses. Most of the losses visible on the painting are due to poor handling or physical accidents during transport or storage. There is little to suggest that deterioration has occurred as a consequence of poor artist technique. Several areas of paint and priming loss occur in series, at regular intervals across the image. For example, a series of linear losses extends from the top edge of the painting; the spaces between these losses range from 360mm to 380mm. Another series of small losses, occurring at regular intervals, extends across the centre of the painting.

image Before Treatment before treatment more detail

The nature and the sequence of paint loss suggest that the painting has been rolled at some time. The linear losses from the top edge show that the rolled painting was compressed, and the small losses across the centre are damages characteristic of a tightly tied strap or cord. A relatively large area of loss on the bottom left corner of the painting indicates that the rolled painting was dropped or stored standing on that end.

There are two reasons for rolling an oil painting, the first is for storage, the second is for transport. If we accept that the painting accompanied the Tasman family to Batavia and returned to Europe with the remarried Janetjie, it is feasible that it may have been rolled for easier transport and packing. Alternatively, or as well as being rolled for transport, the painting may have shared the fate of many historical portraits by losing relevance to subsequent generations of a family. The old painting's place on the wall was invariably usurped by more recent portraits, and displaced paintings were often removed from their stretchers, rolled and stored in cupboards, attics or cellars.

The other cause of deterioration present on the painting is due to previous restoration. It would not be unusual for a painting of this age to have been treated on several occasions during the past 300 years. During these treatments the final glazes applied by the artist have been lost. The original canvas has been glued to another canvas.

This process, called lining, has been successful in stabilising the overall structure; however, the process of glue lining can result in flattening and abrasion to the paint surface. As well, the previous treatments have left the surface of the painting denuded of a translucent brown upper layer across the background and a black glaze on some ofthe costumes. These, combined with the natural tendency of oil paint to become more translucent with age, has left the painting a little thin in places.

image Infrared reflectography revealing an earlier version of Janetjie Tjaer's headInfrared reflectography revealing an earlier version of Janetjie Tjaer's head more detail

womans-faceJanetjie Tjaer's collar partly cleaned of discoloured varnish  more detail

The examination of paintings with ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths is also part of the pre-treatment documentation process. Examination of Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter under ultraviolet revealed little of interest other than a general fluorescence of an aged natural resin varnish. Illuminating the painting with infrared produced more interesting results. Areas of preliminary drawing are visible throughout the composition. The most intriguing is an earlier rendition ofJanetjie's head, to the right of the final version. Initially this figure had been painted a little shorter, and with a simple collar. The final position places Janetjie taller and closer to Tasman, and she wears a broad circular lace collar. While artists often alter the position of subjects during the development of a painting, it is interesting that the collar has been changed so dramatically. Perhaps this represents changing fortunes in the Tasman family during the time of painting. The previous location of Janetjie's head can be seen in normal light as the dense area of paint to the right of the final version.

Following the examination of the painting, solvent tests were undertaken to determine the most suitable mixture to remove the discoloured varnish. It was found that a mixture of ethanol and petroleum spirits readily removed the aged and discoloured varnish without impact on the underlying paint. The removal of the discoloured varnish was visually dramatic, especially on areas of white.

As varnish removal progressed across the painting, the subject developed a greater appearance of depth. The three figures have become clearly delineated from the background, the colour of the tablecloth has returned to its original blue, and the details of the costumes can now be discerned. When varnish removal was completed, however, the painting looked a little worse for wear.This was because the solvent mixture also removed previous inpainting applied over the numerous losses of paint. Areas of white filler were scattered across the image.

The next stage in the treatment of Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter was to compensate losses of paint, re-varnish the painting and inpaint the losses. An assessment of the existing gesso fills revealed that most were stable, and these were left in position. Loose fills were replaced and some additional areas were filled with synthetic gesso. The next step was to make the losses of original paint less visible. This is achieved by colouring the filled losses with new paint to match the original colours- a process called inpainting. Conservators are very particular that their inpainting does not extend over the artist's paint. Inpainting also has to reflect the character and age of the work undergoing treatment. A worn and aged painting should retain an appearance of age and not be 'restored' to appear as if it is in an undamaged state. Prior to inpainting, the work was varnished. Varnishing at this stage enables the conservator to accurately match the colour of the new inpainting with the saturated and final colour of the painting. It also provides an isolating layer between the original paint and the paint applied by the conservator.

Originally, Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter would have been coated with a varnish made from a natural resin, such as copal, mastic or damar. Conservators recognise the limitations of natural resin varnishes and often coat paintings undergoing conservation treatments with synthetic resin varnishes. Synthetic resin varnishes have greater light stability but do not saturate paintings in the same way as natural resin varnishes. Paintings that have dark areas, such as the clothing on the figures in the Tasman painting, can appear a little grey if coated with a synthetic resin varnish. In order to avoid this problem, the painting was given a thin coating of dilute damar resin in white spirits.

Detail3detail of hands, after treatment more detail

The contemporary inpainting medium used by conservators for oil paintings is generally powdered pigments mixed with acrylic resin. This is done to discriminate between the original paint and that applied by a conservator. The compensation of losses can be a most satisfying aspect of a conservation treatment. As the losses are inpainted, the damages become less visually obtrusive and the painting once again appears whole. Of course inpainting can be a most frustrating chore when one cannot seem to get the right colour to match the original. Inpainting the numerous losses on Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter proceeded smoothly.

After inpainting, the work was given a final thin coating of damar varnish. This presents the painting with a unified surface and further saturates the colours. The completed painting was returned to its existing frame and returned to exhibition.

In addition to the physical treatment of the painting, it was hoped that the conservation treatment would solve questions surrounding the identification of the artist. While it has always been assumed that Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter was painted by Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594-1651), the lack of a signature and documentary evidence created some doubt and speculation regarding other possible artists. The hope was that removal of the discoloured varnish would reveal a signature to positively identify the artist.

Initially, attention was directed towards the globe: here the remnants of what looked like a finely painted inscription could be seen in a panel painted on the base of the globe. Unfortunately the fragments could not be linked together to form text. The next area to come under scrutiny was the background above the child's head. Once again the faintest fragments of script could be seen, but no definite inscription could be identified. Both infrared reflectography and polarised light photography were unsuccessful in clarifying the possible signature site. The identification of the artist of Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter must remain a mystery. In a profession where paintings are examined in ever increasing detail, it is heartening to see that some refuse to give up all their secrets.

Allan Byrne

First published in artonview 22 winter 2000