Revealing Murillo…treatment underway

10 May 2017 by Olympia Diamond

During treatment photograph. Varnish has been removed from the left sided of her face.

During treatment photograph. Varnish has been removed from the left side of her face.

The practical treatment of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s altarpiece Virgin and Child in Glory (1673) has been progressing at a steady pace. My initial examinations, discussed in my last blog, involved investigating the layer of varnish on the surface of the painting…

A varnish coating is a necessary part of paintings from the 17th century. It was used to protect the paint layer from dirt and pollutants, while also fully saturating colours, revealing the depth and volume created by the artist in the painted image.

As a varnish ages it oxidises, causing the varnish to become less transparent and discolour to a brown or yellow colour. This distorts the colour balance and spatial relationships in the painting.

The varnish coating on Virgin and Child in Glory has become very discoloured and is definitely not the original coating; it most likely dates from the mid 19th century or later. Therefore I am removing the discoloured varnish layer and to reveal Murillo’s beautiful colours and subtler tones. It is very exciting.

In the following photographs, you can see how the removal of the dark, yellowed varnish allows the putto’s pink flesh tones to emerge as well as Murillo’s soft painting technique.

This detailed photograph documents varnish removal. A cotton swab is used to apply solvent to the varnish layer. This begins to dissolve the oxidised varnish. The paint layer is unaffected. Rolling the swab across the surface it absorbs the varnish as it dissolves.Later on in the treatment a new varnish will be applied to re-saturate and protect the surface once again.

Here is a time lapse video showing part of the process in action:


Visit from the Art Fund

Olympia Diamond, Paintings Conservator, discussing ongoing work with Art Fund members.

Olympia Diamond, Paintings Conservator, discussing ongoing work with Art Fund members.

I was very fortunate to be able to share my work with some members of the local branch of the Art Fund. The group started their day in the Walker Art Gallery with a talk by Xanthe Brooke, Curator of European Fine Art, which introduced the history of the paintings and how they arrived at the Walker. Next, the group travelled to the Conservation Centre where I discussed ongoing practical work and shared new discoveries with everyone. The Art Fund helped to fund the purchase of the oil study as well as conservation post and it was a wonderful to be able to share part of the process with them.

You can view Murillo’s painting online now and other stories of the conservation of the altarpiece elsewhere on the blog. If you’re interested in conservation visit our conservation webpages to find out more about the team and the work they do for National Museums Liverpool’s collections.

  1. Carmel Short says:

    It is fantastic to see the work as it goes along. What an interesting job!

  2. Colin McDonough says:

    Thank you for such exact step by step information. I first saw this wonderful painting when as I was in my early teens and I have loved it ever since. I look forward to seeing it once again. Thank you Olympia, for your fabulous and painstaking work, which will ensure that this treasure will be marveled at for many generations to come.

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