Documentation exists on the restorations undertaken on the paintings since the 18th century when they were in the Spanish royal collection. Having entered the Prado in 1827, they were restored in the mid-19th century and it is recorded that further work was undertaken on the Adam in the 20th century, when a cradle was attached to the back.
The accumulation of these interventions ultimately resulted in a harsh, flat image that lacked the original enamelled effect achieved by the artist. Thick layers of dirt, oxidised varnishes and areas of repainting that had darkened over time covered the paint surfaces, concealing Dürer’s brushstrokes and original colouring.
These old restorations also affected the panels and resulted in numerous vertical cracks, particularly in the Adam. The depth of that panel was reduced in order to attach a rigid structure to the back, after which the original wood could not move. The Eve panel had three new cross-bars nailed to it from the front in order to eliminate its natural curvature. The inevitable movement of the wood had resulted in distortions and bulging that in turn created shadows and irregularities on the paint surface and negatively affected Dürer’s forms. All these problems meant that restoration was considered necessary.
In 2004 the Prado organised an international meeting on the project to restore the Adam and Eve. It saw the participation of restorers from various institutions and was intended to establish the best way of approaching a project of this complexity and delicacy. Work on the panels was completed in 2009.
In collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum conservator, George Bisacca and an engineer, research was undertaken to develop a new mechanism based on springs that would give Adam’s panel (one of which had been reduced in thickness and cradled in the past) greater structural resistance. This mechanism can now be used in other similar restorations.
The old cradle (a wooden grid stuck to the back of the original panel) was removed from the Adam and the numerous cracks that it had produced were closed up. Due to the fragility of that panel it was decided to attach a new, reinforcing structure that would respect the natural curvature of the wood and which was only attached to the original panel at a number of specific points, thus allowing it to move freely. The three, screwed-on cross-bars were removed from the Eve panel while the original surviving cross-bar was restored and laminated in order to adapt it to the curvature of the panel.
Having stabilised the support and given the panels smooth, continuous surfaces, work started on the delicate, complex task of restoring the paint surfaces, undertaken by Maite Dávila. Her work involved eliminating the incorrect contrasts and modifications visible in the paintings, as well as revealing the underdrawing, which the artist executed with a brush and a fluid medium. Of great complexity and refinement, this underdrawing was softened by Dürer through the application of fine glazes of flesh tones that served to emphasise the differences between the male and female nudes.