Michael Gallagher, Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge, Department of Paintings Conservation
Velázquez's Portrait of a Young Girl is surely among this great artist's most immediately captivating and appealing paintings. However, buried beneath thick layers of discolored varnish for many decades, the work had been, in effect, reduced to a mere image—almost a stand-in for the real object. The painting's true, cool palette and silvery tonality, as well as its assured but delicate facture, were no longer evident. It was like a charming photo of a person we had yet to meet. This simple fact was what precipitated the decision to undertake conservation treatment.
This dramatic image shows the very dark varnish coating after it had been partially removed. The damage to the edges that is being revealed occurred at some point in the painting's past when it was evidently attached to a smaller stretcher. The perimeter of the composition was folded back 90 degrees and tacks were hammered straight through the paint surface. At a later date, the edges were turned back out and the losses were disguised by liberally overpainting large portions of the background—including areas that were not damaged. All of this took place before the painting entered the collection of the Hispanic Society of America.
Without a saturating varnish, the painting appears matte and grayed out; this is only temporary. The full extent of the damage to the edges can now be seen, but in the scheme of things, it is relatively inconsequential and can be easily addressed by careful restoration.
The painting has been lit to emphasize its surface topography. Under the thick, discolored varnish, many areas of paint were raised and insecure, so the next step was consolidation: using dilute aqueous adhesive to penetrate through the fine cracks and applying gentle pressure and heat to secure the surface and reduce the "cupped" effect of the raised craquelure.
Following consolidation, a thin varnish was applied to the painting. This began the process of saturation, which revealed the full tonal range and also acted as an isolating layer between the original and any filling and restoration. The losses at the edges were brought up to level with a toned filler. The color of this material was chosen to mimic the ground—the term for the layer of paint applied across the whole canvas to prepare it for painting the portrait. The damage already seems "quieter" and less disruptive.
The paint losses were retouched so that it is possible to fully appreciate the artist's work without distraction. The painting also now has a properly saturating varnish that reveals the subtlety of handling and tonal range. The materials used for the retouching and varnishing are fully reversible, and as such can be easily and safely removed at any point in the future if necessary.
The change in appearance that takes place when a discolored varnish is removed from a well-known painting—so-called "cleaning"—can be disconcerting. The difference in the color palette and tonality is often dramatic and may demand a recalibration of expectations. However, when a positive transformation is the result, revealing a truly singular work of art, both the process and end result are also exhilarating.
Velázquez (Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez) (Spanish, 1599–1660). Portrait of a Young Girl (detail), ca. 1640. Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 1/8 in. (51.5 x 41 cm). The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY