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A Devil in the Details
The special exhibition Rembrandt’s Century, currently on view alongside Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis, is striking both in its breadth and for the fact that the works on view all come from the Fine Arts Museums’ permanent collections. Preparations for this exhibition were lengthy, with some works requiring restoration treatments. In this blog post, paper conservation intern Laura Neufeld demonstrates how, in matters of conservation, the devil really is in the details.
The engraving Allegory of the State of the Netherlands Under Spanish Tyranny, made in 1622 by the Dutch artist Willem Jacobsz Delff, was recently restored. Though unassuming at first glance, this finely engraved, detailed composition depicts ghoulish scenes of the Spanish Inquisition.
Another ghoulish sight was the poor quality lining that was adhered to the back of the print. The stiff lining paper was causing serious wrinkles and distortions in the art.
On the front, the print was marred by dark adhesive stains and small losses in the image.
In order to humidify and flatten the print and treat the stains and losses, the backing had to be removed. Testing showed that the lining adhesive was soluble in water, but that the oil-based printing ink was not, which allowed the print to be safely bathed in water.
Once the adhesive had softened, the lining was gently removed.
Tears were mended on the reverse with strips of Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. Losses in the print were filled with dry cast paper pulp inserts. Cast paper pulp sheets are made by pulping historic Western papers of various colors in a blender and forming a new sheet in a leaf caster (a small paper making machine) that was custom designed by the Museums’ paper conservators.
The cast paper pulp sheets are thin, soft, and pliable, making them a perfect material for repairing the handmade rag papers found in old master prints and drawings.
In this treatment, the cast paper pulp was also used to camouflage the appearance of adhesive stains and ink halos around the text, the results of old retouching. A thin layer of the cast pulp was carefully applied over stains and around the letters to make the lines appear crisper. To integrate the fills and camouflaged areas with the surrounding design, they were lightly toned with watercolors.
To complete the treatment, the print was humidified and flattened.
In paper conservation, the devil is always in the details. The success of a treatment depends on implementing creative solutions and finding repair materials that are safe for the art. After treatment, the wrinkles, stains, and losses no longer obscure the dramatic scenes portrayed in this detailed print.
Although this print is not currently on view, many other fascinating 17th-century prints from the Museums’ works on paper department, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, can be seen in Rembrandt’s Century, on view at the de Young through June 2, 2013.