Was the Leonardo overcleaned?

There is a bit of an argument going on in the art world about how to clean a painting and how much to clean it. It came to a head recently over the cleaning and restoration of the Louvre‘s “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Two French art experts have quit The Louvre’s advisory committee in a row over the restoration of a Leonardo da Vinci painting, according to reports.
Segolene Bergeon Langle and Jean-Pierre Cuzin resigned in protest over the cleaning of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, The Guardian said. The pair claim the Paris gallery has over cleaned the 500-year-old masterpiece. They argue it has left the work with a brightness the artist never intended.

via BBC News – Louvre experts ‘quit over Leonardo da Vinci work’.

There are a couple of points that make me wonder if they have actually thought about what they are saying. I am not disputing the fact that you need to be very careful when restoring a five hundred year old masterpiece. My arguments against them are these. Firstly, cleaning is not going to create new colours, it is only going to expose the colours that Leonardo (or his assistants) put on the wood panel in the first place. Secondly, they presume to know how Leonardo intended the painting to look. Did he leave a set of notes saying that on no account should five centuries worth of candle soot and darkening varnish ever be removed from the surface of the painting? Or are they really saying, “We actually preferred it the way it was before cleaning.”? If they had said that I could have accepted it as their judgement, because that is what it is, an aesthetic judgement. Trying to invoke the ghost of Leonardo to back up your taste is not really on.

Make your own mind up, the un-cleaned painting is on the left, and the cleaned painting is on the right.(Click on the picture to see it in a larger size.)

If you want to see an even better example of the restoration of a painting take a look at this article from the Guardian about Dulwich Picture Gallery‘s restoration of a painting of St Cecilia.


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