De Hooch, during restoration. Mauritshuis
De Hooch, during restoration. Mauritshuis
Photo: © Museum Mauritshuis
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Mauritshuis shares conservation secrets

July 15, 2021

From 7 October 2021, the Mauritshuis will be sharing the mysterious world of its in-house conservation studio. In the exhibition Facelifts & Makeovers, the conservation, restoration and examination of paintings at the Mauritshuis takes centre stage. Through 20 case studies, visitors to this interactive exhibition will discover what is required to keep the world-famous collection of paintings at the Mauritshuis in tip-top condition. Videos, animations, short podcasts and digital before-and-after sliders will explore the most astonishing discoveries of the past 25 years. The paintings all come from the museum’s own collection, including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Steen.

Conservation at the Mauritshuis

The exhibition focuses on one of the Mauritshuis’s most important tasks: caring for the collection of paintings through conservation, restoration and research. Since 1995, a team of conservators has been working in the well-equipped studio. The studio not only carries out conservation treatment, but it also forms an important research centre. More and more research is being undertaken into the materials and techniques that painters used, with conservators using the latest techniques and state-of-the-art equipment, such as a 3D scanning microscope that can take extremely high-resolution images of the paint surface.

Facelifts & Makeovers tells the story of 20 paintings that have found their way to the conservation studio over the past 25 years. In the exhibition, visitors will learn more about ‘varnish removal’ (replacing old layers of often yellowed varnish with more durable finishes), ‘pentimenti’ (literally ‘expressions of repentance’, changes made by the artist during the painting process), ‘dendrochronology’ (a technique for dating boards from a wooden panel), ‘attribution’ (identifying the maker of a painting) and ‘consolidating’ (securing flaking paint).

A new cloudy sky

The Mauritshuis has three paintings by Johannes Vermeer in its collection: the famous works Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, but also the lesser known Diana and her Nymphs. During conservation treatment of Diana and her Nymphs in 1999, research into the pigments used revealed that rather than having been painted by Vermeer, the cloudy sky was in fact a later addition. After weighing up the pros and cons, it was decided that instead of removing the cloudy sky, it would instead be hidden from view. As is now common practice, this treatment is reversible. In other words, the thin layer of paint over the sky can easily be removed at a later date if future generations think differently. This intervention returned the painting from 1653-54 to the painter’s original vision: the depiction seems more intimate and the fall of light is more convincing. We now know that Diana and her Nymphs is one of the Delft artist’s earliest paintings.

Work in progress: a ‘new’ soldier?

For one of the paintings in the exhibition, conservation treatment is still a ‘work in progress’, which is why the work has been removed from its frame to be enjoyed as the concluding piece in the exhibition. A Man Smoking and A Woman Drinking in a Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch from around 1658-60 shows a seated man with a woman and a child in a Dutch courtyard. However, De Hooch originally painted a fourth figure (as can be seen in the other version of the painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington): a soldier in a cuirass holding a tankard of beer. For unknown reasons, he became surplus to requirements over the centuries and was removed. What remains of the soldier are his cape (on the railings), his pipe (on the table) and part of his thumb (on the tankard). Recently the remainder of this soldier, which was still hidden under a layer of paint, was once again made visible. To complete this conservation project, there are various possible options for the soldier and these are currently under consideration.

The exhibition runs 7 October 2021 - 9 January 2022.

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