Here’s What Would Happen If You Tried To Clean Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’
By Yoon Sann Wong, 13 Apr 2018
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Image via muratart / Shutterstock.com
Late last year, Philip Mould—art dealer as well as co-creator and presenter of BBC TV’s Fake or Fortune—shared a video to his Twitter showcasing the restoration of a 200-year-old oil portrait featuring an unknown woman. The clip, featured below, shows the careful removal of its old protective layer of varnish and gained much traction on Twitter plus Tumblr.
The intriguing process had some viewers calling for the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa painting, created in 1503, pictured above.
Cleaning the Mona Lisa that’s on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, however, is definitely easier said than done. A few days ago, Tumblr user Eleanor, who studies painting and chemistry, explained why restoring the classic artwork is a highly complex and delicate task.
In the post, Eleanor highlights that the first hurdle comes with the Mona Lisa being a glazed painting. This is where an underpainting is painted, often in gray or brown, which is allowed to dry before extremely thin layers of glaze—small amount of pigment mixed with much oil—is added to the surface.
“Some artists, such as Leonardo, choose to work this way because it provides an incredible sense of light and illumination (look at how the real Mona Lisa seems to glow),” explains Eleanor.
This also makes the Mona Lisa very fragile. Since the glazes and varnish layers are of a similar chemical composition, a conservator could unintentionally erode layers of glaze while trying to rid the varnish.
During its initial restoration in 1809, the Mona Lisa’s top layer of paint was destroyed, causing the artwork to appear more washed out than da Vinci had painted it.
While some paintings of the same age as the Mona Lisa might show less craquelure, also known as cracking, which is what happens when the paint shrinks as it dries or when the surface that it’s painted on begins to warp, the Mona Lisa has much more craquelure due to da Vinci’s experimental painting techniques.
Eleanor uses the artist’s renowned The Last Supper painting as an example of the tedious restoration process.
The Last Supper was “painstakingly and tediously restored, with conservators sometimes working on sections as small as 4 cm a day. To get to it you’ve got to walk through a series of airlocks and they only allow 15 people at a time because the moisture from your breath and your skin particles will damage it. Despite all of the precautions and restoration, it still looks like that.”
“This is because Leonardo painted the last supper using highly experimental methods. He didn’t use the traditional wet-into-wet method that fresco painters used, and instead painted onto the dry plaster on the wall, meaning the paint did not chemically adhere. Before he even died the painting had already begun to flake. It’s a miracle it’s still there at all.”
Furthermore, the risk of damaging the Mona Lisa is extremely great. The painting holds the Guinness World Record for the “highest insurance valuation for a painting” at US$100 million in December 1962. After taking inflation into consideration, the painting’s insurance value is estimated to lie north of US$700 million.
“It’s simply too difficult and too risky to restore the Mona Lisa, one of Leonardo’s only finished and mostly intact works, when there’s hardly any more of his paintings to fall back on,” concludes Eleanor.
You can read the Tumblr user’s full explanation here.
dracofidus: soggy-bunny: eliciaforever: beyoursledgehammer: steampunktendencies: A remarkable Jacobean re-emergence after 200 years of yellowing varnish Courtesy Philip Mould PAINT RESTORATION OF MESMERIZING I saw this on Twitter. He's using acetone, but a cellulose ether has been added to make it into a gel (probably Klucel-this entire gel mixture is sometimes just called Klucel by restorers, but Klucel is specifically the stuff that makes the gel).
[via Bored Panda and Tumblr, main image via muratart / Shutterstock.com]
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