The two paintings of The 2nd and The 3rd of May, painted by Francisco de Goya in 1814, entered the collections of the Museo del Prado at an early date but were not exhibited together until well into the 19th century. The first to go on display was The 2nd of May, which was seen by foreign visitors in the late 1840s, followed in the 1860s by The 3rd of May. With regard to early restorations, the only information now known is that in 1883 the painter-restorer Salvador Martínez-Cubells varnished the two canvases, as he noted in his workbook still preserved in the Museum. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War and with the aim of avoiding damage to the paintings, they were carefully packed and transported in lorries to Valencia along with numerous other masterpieces from the Museum’s collection. In March 1938 they were sent to Girona and it was during this trip that the lorry transporting them was involved in a crash while passing through the village of Benicarló. The two paintings, which were packed together, received a heavy blow that split the canvases along various horizontal lines. While both were affected it was The 2nd of May that suffered the greatest damage, and two small pieces of canvas painted with original paint and possibly in very poor condition were lost on the road. These two missing areas are on the left side of the canvas at the middle and top.
In May 1938 the paintings were re-lined in the Castillo de Peralada in Girona by Tomás Pérez and Manuel Arpe y Retamino, the liner and restorer of the Museo del Prado respectively. The process of re-lining basically consists of attaching a new canvas to the back of an old, damaged one in order to give it greater resistance and strength.
In September 1939, after the end of the War, the paintings returned to the Prado where Manuel Arpe y Retamino completed the restoration of both canvases through the process of retouching or re-integrating. This involved dissimulating the damage and splits produced during the accident and applying new pigment to the areas of losses of original paint. Arpe re-integrated the original paint over the cuts in the canvas, but for the larger missing areas he decided to use a technique known as “neutral tint”, which was common in the restoration of wall paintings. This technique is used when the restorer is faced with large areas of loss and does not know the original appearance of these areas. It consists of applying a uniform colour to the area of loss which is not excessively obtrusive and which blends with the general tonality of the work.
Following Arpe y Retamino’s restoration the resulting appearance was maintained for both paintings until the most recent restoration.
In 2000, the Museo del Prado decided to restore the paintings and with this aim in mind convened an international symposium at the Museum, attended by art historians specialising in Goya and leading restorers.
In the restoration undertaken in 1941 the paintings had been given a coat of varnish which, due to the passing of time and inevitable oxidisation, had lost its transparency and turned into a yellow coating that obscured the original colours. Restoration of paintings should be undertaken when they are considered to be at physical risk or when the colours, glazes and other technical devices have become obscured or altered by dirt that has accumulated over the original surface. This was the case with The 2nd and The 3rd of May, and for this reason the idea of cleaning them was first considered in the late 1990s. Eliminating dirt and yellowed varnish is a process comparable to tuning a musical instrument and the result facilitates communication between artist and viewer.
The yellowed varnishes have been removed in both works using a cleaning process that has revealed the depth and profundity of the original colours. In addition, it is now possible to see technical details and brushstrokes that were hidden by the old varnish. The paintings were created as a pair and in their newly cleaned state it is possible to appreciate more easily the elements that relate them. The colours have regained their former depth and intensity, the figures are now in their appropriate locations and above all, the full importance of the light and its nuances is now evident.
Apart from the damage that occurred during the Civil War, the present state of the paintings is exceptionally good. Close inspection of the works reveals the outstandingly well conserved pigment, and the quality and variety of the tones in any small area chosen at random. If we also bear in mind the size of the canvases and the fact that they are a pair, it is possible to fully appreciate their exceptional nature. When the decision was taken to restore these outstandingly important paintings, it was unanimously decided in the Museum that the so-called “neutral” tints could not be retained as they significantly interfered with a correct reading of The 2nd of May in a variety of ways. The original lost paint surface, covered with a reddish tone in the 1941 restoration, displaced the viewer’s gaze from the warm original colours (the red breeches of the Mamelukes) towards the left of the composition. In addition, our gaze was lost in the area of red paint in the area originally occupied by the curved sabre, deliberately painted in that spot by Goya in order to close that corner of the composition and return the viewer’s gaze to the centre of the canvas.
Perhaps the most important point for clarifying the issue of the restoration and re-integration of the lost zones has been the fact that the Museum has sufficient visual documentation on the works dating from prior to the damage.
The existence of black and white photographs taken before the Civil War (Moreno, Alinari and Ruiz Vernacci archives) and the modifications to the colour and composition undertaken in 1938 were determining factors when the decision was made to carefully reconstruct the paintwork of the lost areas using a computer-manipulated stencil based on the old photographs. This allowed for a type of restoration not possible in 1941.
The technique of reconstruction has involved the application of small stripes of colour which allow the viewer to appreciate the restored zones from close up but which blend into the overall vision of the work when seen from a distance, camouflaging the losses and thus allowing for a better visual understanding of the whole.
The two paintings have been re-varnished using a natural damar resin that has given the canvasses a texture similar to the one they would originally have possessed.
The restoration of the two canvases took different amounts of time. With regard to The 2nd of May, Elisa Mora started work on preliminary tests and studies approximately a year ago as the characteristics and specific problems of this work meant that the restoration process would be a lengthy one. The restoration of The 3rd of May by Clara Quintanilla and Enrique Quintana involved cleaning the oxidised varnishes in a way similar to that undertaken on The 2nd of May but less time was required overall as the retouching of paint losses was less complex.
Finally, we should bear in mind the excellent state of conservation of the two works, due not only to the exceptionally high quality of Goya’s technique but also to the correct nature of the restorations that were undertaken in the past and which have undoubtedly contributed to the fact that these paintings seem so accessible and full of life.
Enrique Quintana, Head of the Area of Painting Restoration, Museo del Prado