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Exhibitions/ Grand Design/ Grand Design Exhibition Blog/ Four Drawings by Coecke: Before and After

Four Drawings by Coecke: Before and After

Entrance gallery of Grand Design

Grand Design entrance gallery with an image on the far wall of the Conversion of Saul tapestry on the left and an enlarged image of the petit patron for the tapestry on the right

Working on a major exhibition can feel like cooking a very elaborate meal: the preparation takes much longer than the actual event. Many of these preparations—especially conservation efforts—go unnoticed, although the result is there for any visitor to the show to see. While working on Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, I felt that four of the drawings selected for the show would benefit from conservation treatment before going on view in our galleries. Because none of these sheets is owned by the Metropolitan Museum, I had to rely on the willingness of curators and conservators abroad, as well as that of a private collector in New York, to consider my request.

One of the drawings in question, and one of the most famous by Coecke, is a petit patron (or small cartoon) for the Conversion of Saul tapestry, which is the second episode in the Story of Saint Paul series. This drawing was generously lent to Grand Design by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The entrance gallery of the exhibition, shown above, is decorated with an enlarged image of this petit patron and its corresponding tapestry.

This reproduction attests to the mastery of Coecke's draftsmanship, which holds up even on that scale, but the image would have looked rather less attractive if the drawing had still looked as it did a year ago. In this drawing, Coecke used white gouache more than in any of the other drawings for the Saint Paul series—in this instance, to evoke the light emanating from the vision of Christ in the clouds, surrounding Saul on the ground, and casting long shadows in the direction in which the soldiers are fleeing. As often seen in drawings heightened with lead white, oxidation turned the pigment black. This process of oxidation, already evident in the first photographic reproduction of the drawing published in 1933, made Coecke's drawing look unbalanced and confused the viewer.

The Conversion of Saul (before treatment)

Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550). The Conversion of Saul drawing (before treatment), ca. 1530. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white gouache; 10 3/8 x 20 3/8 in. (26.3 x 51.9 cm). Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. Dyce 190

At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Mark Evans, head of paintings and photographs, discussed the possibility of reversing the oxidation with Alan Derbyshire, head of paper books and paintings conservation, and Victoria Button, senior paper conservator. Ethical considerations play an important role in decisions of this kind, and such treatments are not taken lightly, but the conservators felt an intervention was warranted in this case because of how much the oxidation had altered Coecke's intentions. The final result fully restores the drawing's bold chiaroscuro.

The Conversion of Saul (after treatment)

The Conversion of Saul drawing after treatment

Another two of the drawings, or more precisely, fragments from two of the cartoons for the Story of Saint Paul series, are owned by Philip Taaffe, a New York painter who is the latest in a line of artists apparently fascinated by the beauty and functionality of these works. One of the fragments relates to the third episode, Saint Paul Refusing the Sacrifice at Lystra, and the other to the fifth scene, The Burning of the Books at Ephesus. When Mr. Taaffe acquired them at auction in 2009, they showed all the signs of their use by the weavers, as well as of the damage done by time. Surface dirt made the original colors look dim. One of the fragments consisted of a great number of smaller pieces of paper, loosely held together by two other layers of paper to which they were attached; these secondary supports were visible as off-white gaps where pieces of the fragments were missing, disrupting the legibility of the image.

Two drawings before treatment

Left: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550). A man looking up from behind an altar (cartoon fragment for Saint Paul Refusing the Sacrifice at Lystra) (before treatment), ca. 1530. Brush and watercolor and gouache, brush and pen and brown ink, over black chalk; 18 3/4 x 14 5/8 in. (47.7 x 36.9 cm). Philip Taaffe, New York. Right: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550). Head of a man looking upward (cartoon fragment for The Burning of the Books at Ephesus) (before treatment), ca. 1530. Brush and watercolor and gouache, brush and pen and brown ink, over black chalk; 13 1/8 x 9 5/8 in. (33.3 x 24.5 cm). Philip Taaffe, New York

To present the fragments closer to the state in which Coecke and the weavers would have known them, and to stabilize their condition so that they could safely be put on display in the exhibition, Marjorie Shelley, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of the Metropolitan's Department of Paper Conservation, discussed the possible treatment with Mr. Taaffe, who gave his permission to carry out the work in the Museum's studio. Working on the horizontal fragment of a man looking up from behind an altar, she lifted the numerous layered pieces that made up the cartoon from their secondary support, reduced the surface dirt, and reassembled the pieces again without a lining so that the back of the sheet could be studied. To visually integrate the whole, she repaired the gaps with specially made cast paper corresponding to the tone of the adjacent original pieces. The final result is a fragment that is both more secure and more visually satisfying. The second cartoon fragment was treated in a similar way by another of the Museum's conservators, Yana van Dyke. Here, too, the result allowed the sensitive drawing in black chalk of the man's face, undoubtedly the work of Coecke himself, to shine more than it did before.

Two drawings after treatment

The two cartoon fragments after treatment

The St. Annen-Museum in Lübeck lent to the show a petit patron for the sixth episode from the Saint Paul seriesSaint Paul Defending Himself before Agrippa. The loan is particularly exciting, as the drawing is livelier than a more famous version of the composition in the collection of the Albertina in Vienna (also included in the show). Also, the Grand Design exhibition marks the first time the drawing has left Lübeck since it entered the collection there in the nineteenth century.

When I studied the drawing on a trip to Germany, the sheet, beautiful as it was, turned out to be disfigured by a large vertical tear running through the soccle of the column at center and then up between that column and the one to its right. The two halves of the drawing were reassembled coarsely, which hampered the legibility of the composition.

Saint Paul Defending Himself Before Agrippa (before treatment)

Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, 1502–1550). Saint Paul Defending Himself before Agrippa drawing (before treatment), ca. 1530. Pen and brown ink, brown wash; 10 5/8 x 20 in. (27 x 50.9 cm). St. Annen-Museum, Kulturstiftung Hansestadt Lübeck, inv. ab 380

Alexander Bastek, the St. Annen-Museum's director, was kind enough to facilitate treatment of the drawing. Susanne Schöning, that museum's paper conservator, was able to reattach almost seamlessly the two parts of the drawing, which now hangs proudly in the Grand Design exhibition next to its Viennese twin.

Saint Paul Defending Himself Before Agrippa (after treatment)

Saint Paul Defending Himself before Agrippa drawing after treatment

We are grateful to these various lenders for their exceptional cooperation, and especially to the conservators for their highly competent work. Perhaps the highest praise for the results they achieved may lie in the fact that few visitors will notice the great care that went into the presentation of these drawings in a state as close as possible to that known to the artist when he made them almost five centuries ago.

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