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Dutch girl prelude

One would think that cleaning old paintings and repairing torn canvases will over time become a boring routine. The truth is that every painting (well, almost every) poses a different challenge and no matter how many times you may think you have seen the same problem, there is always the possibility that a surprise is lurking around the corner. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise, more likely though, it is not.

There is a large panel painting of a young girl I recently worked on. She must be about 8-9 years old, sitting, dressed in a heavy woollen garment, holding a flowery wreath that she must have made before she was forced to sit motionless for hours, so that the painter, a major artist of the town of Delft, could capture her resemblance. She was painted in the middle of the 17th century, the time of the Dutch Golden Era, in 1648 to be exact, by a well known painter named Hendrik van der Vliet.  She is beautifully painted with glazes, her apron is snow white and you could replicate the embroidery easily today, it is painted in such realistic detail.

“Who is he?” Asks Stephen, my business partner and a friend I share the studio with.
“It’s a she,” I tell him. You would be surprised how difficult it is to tell males and females apart in some paintings. I used to make fun of Stephen about his presumed lack of ability in this area, until I spent half a day referring to an important client’s ancestral portrait of three boys as “those lovely girls”, forgetting that in the past very young boys wore  dresses. And also – you won’t find this in any serious official art history literature – our ancestors of the Baroque era really liked manly women with small breasts but large hands and effeminate men with long hair but hairless chests.

She is painted on an oak panel, four horizontal planks glued together. Some skilled restorer in the past attached a cradle to the back to keep the wood from warping. The cradle worked well and the painting stayed flat for almost 400 years. I don’t have to look at the painting under ultraviolet light to detect the previous restoration work. A lot of what was done to her is clearly visible with the naked eye. The girl’s white apron is specked with yellow lines and dots. Her face is blotchy, a sure sign of old, discolored oil paint. I take her to the dark examination room anyway and shine the ultraviolet (UV) light on her. Sure enough, I can see plenty of old restoration. The magic of UV light lies in the different levels of fluorescence that pigments and varnishes have depending on their age. To put it simply, the newer paint shows as dark purple, while the original paint stays gray.

The girl is looking at me, her faint smile is gentle. I spent the day in research and documenting her condition. When my work for the day is over, I only reluctantly leave her in the darkened studio. If I wasn’t too embarassed, I would call into the darkness, “Good night little girl, I’ll see you tomorrow!”

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