Restoration

 

X-ray of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day showing Bruegel’s particular style and brushwork

Left: Figure of a woman giving her baby wine from a bowl, prior to restoration.

Left: The figure of Saint Martin, covered in dirt and areas of repainting, prior to restoration. Right; Restoration has recovered the original colour and volumes.

Left: Detail of the upper right corner prior to restoration. Right: The same scene. After cleaning it has recovered a sense of light and depth.

Support

Following the initial phases of restoration that led to the rediscovery of the artist’s signature, which was worn and incomplete, as well as the remains of the date in Roman letters, “MDL […]”, Elisa Mora, the restorer undertaking the project, proceeded to recover the original texture of the support and to remove the folds and bulges that were the result of earlier, inappropriate restorations. She removed additional strips that had been added around the edges of the linen support and removed old gesso infilling, areas of repainting and inserts that had been used to fill in splits and holes. She then removed the relining and the thick glue with which it was attached to the original linen support using a controlled humidification system. While this slow and delicate procedure was taking place the old inserts were replaced with small pieces of cloth of a type very similar to the original and all the weak zones on the back were reinforced. To complete the treatment of the support strips were added all round the edge and the painting was placed in a metal frame to correct distortions. A “floating re-lining” was mounted on the stretcher before the painting was attached to it in order to act as a supporting and protecting structure without actually attaching the original linen support to it.

Paint layer

The first step in the restoration of the paint layer consisted in covering over the largest areas of paint loss in order to recover the composition visually, progressively adjusting their tonality using pigments with a resin binding. These pigments were applied with a texture similar to the original one in order to recover the painting’s distinctive tone and luminosity.

As the process of cleaning advanced the composition gradually became clearer to the naked eye, despite its complexity. New details came to light and both the overall composition and the groups of figures became much easier to read, while the landscape gained in depth and its quality of execution was once again evident. It became increasingly possible to appreciate Bruegel’s method of painting black outlines, as well as his characteristic brushstrokes. In addition, it was now possible to discern pictorial devices such as the manner of creating shadows through hatched, parallel brushstrokes that in turn create a sense of volume, as in the group of the mother and child on the far left. The colour also returned to life, particularly the red tones that are of such compositional significance in this work, together with the yellows and blues that are always important in Bruegel’s paintings.

Although Bruegel might have made a preparatory drawing before executing this work alla prima in order to proceed to its execution with greater security, he nonetheless introduced a few changes that became visible once the dirt and layers of varnish had been removed from the surface. The most important pentimento is undoubtedly the one relating to the figure drinking on the upper part of the barrel. When Bruegel decided to make the barrel recede further into the pictorial space he covered over the original white of the figure’s shirt with the red colour of the barrel. The white, however, now shows through from underneath. Other less significant pentimenti include the change in the position of the horse’s muzzle and its left hoof, which Bruegel moved slightly further back into the pictorial space.

The outcome of this complex and extremely difficult process of restoration has exceeded all prior expectations given that the work’s original texture and colours are once again evident. The result is the recuperation of a masterpiece in which Pieter Bruegel the Elder reveals his artistic genius in the conception and realisation of the composition.

 
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