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Technical investigation and restoration

The Restoration of The Soult Immaculate Conception by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban

Among the Madonnas painted by Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables in the Museo del Prado is without doubt one of the most beautiful and celebrated. The recent restoration of the painting undertaken by María Álvarez-Garcillán of the Museum’s Restoration Department has recovered all the work’s original aesthetic splendour.

The Restoration of The Soult Immaculate Conception by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Murillo, Bartolomé Esteban. The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables, or of `Soult', Ca. 1678. oli on canvas. Before and after restoration P02809

Before the restauration

The fact that a painting does not attract the viewer’s attention is the clearest sign that it is in need of restoration. The aim of any such restoration is to present the work in a worthy manner, recovering its full meaning and significance and once more revealing the artist’s technical and pictorial skills. However, the various procedures involved in this process should not erase the marks of time, and respect for a work’s history is one of the fundamental guidelines when carrying out the process in question.

The painting’s history

In 1813 The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables entered the collection of Marshal Soult and was re-lined while in his ownership. Excessive application of heat burned the painting, resulting in shrinkage and blistering (Fig. 1).

An incorrect elimination of old varnishes eroded the paint surface, negatively affecting the top glazes with which Murillo achieved effects of transparency. This damage was treated in the past by repainting almost the entire picture surface, to the point of altering the composition (Fig. 2, a, b, and c).

In 1852 the painting was acquired by the Musée du Louvre. We know that in 1937 Gaston Chauffrey at that museum was entrusted with re-lining it, but he finally opted not do so due to the “poor state of the work”, and the painting was merely “refixé, régénéré et harmonisé”.

In 1941 the painting entered the Museo del Prado. In 1974 it was again the subject of a restoration process regarding which no information is now available but which is evident from the modifications to the varnishes and various re-touchings.

In 1982 the painting was again the subject of treatment, this time to change the stretcher, “adding linen strips to the edges”. In addition, old varnishes and areas of re-painting were eliminated and the “numerous areas of missing pigment and deteriorated zones” were re-integrated. However, the cleaning of the canvas must have been halted when it was noticed that pentimenti became inexplicably visible beneath the areas of re-painting, as well as the fact that the paint surface was extremely worn.

In 2007 the painting again entered the Museum’s Restoration Department (Fig. 3 a, b, and c ). Recent technical studies made it possible to appreciate the extent of the damage and its effect on the painting as a whole. With a full knowledge of the materials used and the artist’s technique it is easier to analyse the effects of time on the painting and to identify the vestiges of previous restorations.

<p><em>Fig.1.</em> Burned texture resulting from an old restoration</p>

Fig.1. Burned texture resulting from an old restoration

<p><em>Fig. 2. a, b and c.</em> Part of the Virgin’s hair and blue mantel were concealed beneath a layer of orange pigment similar to the original background. Before, during and after restoration</p>

Fig. 2. a, b and c. Part of the Virgin’s hair and blue mantel were concealed beneath a layer of orange pigment similar to the original background. Before, during and after restoration

<p><em>Fig. 3. a, b and c.</em> The different colour of the re-touchings was visible throughout the work</p>

Fig. 3. a, b and c. The different colour of the re-touchings was visible throughout the work

Technique and Materials Used

The support

The lining canvas is a thick taffeta weave of a type very similar to the original canvas. On the back is a layer of whiteish coloured priming as well as linen strips added to the lateral edges.

The preparation

Stratigraphic samples revealed that the canvas was covered with a layer of grey-brown preparation made up of earth pigments and small amounts of calcium carbonate, bone blacks and white lead, bound with linseed oil, as in the rest of the painting.

Over this layer Murillo applied a layer of priming that varies in colour between grey-blue, reddish-brown and dark greyish-brown depending on the area to which these colours act as the base. Over this tonal layer he added the colour, which is subtly graduated in some areas to achieve different aesthetic effects. Some areas are more reddish in tone and are visible through the top layer, while others are pinkish in order to reinforce the flesh tones of the angels, painted on top.

Analyses of micro-samples have revealed numerous areas of re-painting in zones of total or partial paint loss, as well as deterioration of some of the pigments, for example, the general darkening of the smalt (Fig. 4.)

The paint surface

The paint layers were applied with a brushstroke of varying dryness depending on the desired result. The lighter areas are the most heavily impastoed and dense, painted with long, firm brushstrokes (Fig. 5). Murillo gave the intermediary planes an ethereal, nebulous effect through the use of large amounts of binder in order to apply superimposed layers of transparent colour (Fig. 5b). The background areas achieve effects of chiaroscuro that are created by allowing the grey-brown priming to show through and hence produce an effect of depth.

Additional X-ray and Infra-red studies allowed the work’s state of preservation to be analysed from other viewpoints. (Fig. 6). These studies show the wear, craquelure, losses to the preparatory layers and the paint surface, and traces of earlier restorations, as well as changes that Murillo made to the composition during the process of execution (Fig. 7, a and b). (Fig. 8.)

<p><em>Fig.4.</em> The stratigraphic sample reveals that the underlayers of the Virgin’s mantel were painted in white lead, smalt and red lake, while the top layers use lapis lazuli</p>

Fig.4. The stratigraphic sample reveals that the underlayers of the Virgin’s mantel were painted in white lead, smalt and red lake, while the top layers use lapis lazuli

<p><em>Fig.5b.</em> Angels in the upper zone</p>

Fig.5b. Angels in the upper zone

<p><em>Fig.5a.</em> Loose, impastoed brushstroke of the white of the mantel</p>

Fig.5a. Loose, impastoed brushstroke of the white of the mantel

<p><em>Fig.6</em>. X-rays reveal the structure of the stretcher with its double cross-piece that was applied in the 19th century but is now lost</p>

Fig.6. X-rays reveal the structure of the stretcher with its double cross-piece that was applied in the 19th century but is now lost

<p><em>Fig.8.</em> Infra-red reflectography shows that the positions of the Virgin’s face and hands were altered during the execution of the work</p>

Fig.8. Infra-red reflectography shows that the positions of the Virgin’s face and hands were altered during the execution of the work

<p><em>Fig. 7a y b.</em> The x-ray reveals the re-positioning further to the right of one of the angels in the lower zone)</p>

Fig. 7a y b. The x-ray reveals the re-positioning further to the right of one of the angels in the lower zone)

The Restoration Process

The manner in which The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables was restored took account of both the historical and physical data set out above.

The painting was consolidated with adhesives similar to the original used in the work. This process made the various paint layers more stable without modifying their structure.

Old varnishes and areas of re-painting were gradually eliminated paying due attention to the aesthetic unity of the work as a whole. The whites were more stable and better preserved than the earth pigments, which are more likely to alter with the passing of time. It was observed that the effects of heat and abrasive cleanings in the past had notably damaged the paint surface, resulting in the loss of some of the top glazes. These factors had to be borne in mind in order not to unbalance the composition and to prevent some areas becoming more prominent than others. The aim when cleaning the painting was to achieve an appearance as close as possible to Murillo’s original intentions (Fig. 9, a, b, and c. ).

The process of re-integration has once again made the composition fully legible. Areas of loss and damaged glazes have been replaced with the intention of recovering the original intention of the brushstrokes and their beauty (Fig. 10, a, b, and c). Using visible brushstrokes or transparencies it has been possible to recreate the ethereal atmosphere of the work, while the glowing areas of light that give the composition its meaning have recovered their original splendour (Fig. 11, a, b, and c.).

Finally, the Museum’s restorers applied a layer of transparent varnish that intensified the luminosity of the colours and acted as a protective barrier.

The painting’s carved and gilded wooden frame in the Louis XV style was commissioned by Marshal Soult and made in France. It has now been restored to tone in with the painting.

Overall, and as a result of the recent restoration that has returned Murillo’s work to all its technical and compositional splendour, the viewer can once again appreciate the celestial jubilation of the angels and accompany the Virgin on her fervent, spiritual journey.

<p><em>Fig. 9. a b y c.</em> Old restoration altered the Virgin’s mantel, concealing the original fall of the drapery</p>

Fig. 9. a b y c. Old restoration altered the Virgin’s mantel, concealing the original fall of the drapery

<p><em>Fig. 11. a, b and c.</em> Old areas of re-painting concealed the face of one of the angels, as well as the subtle effects of glazing</p>

Fig. 11. a, b and c. Old areas of re-painting concealed the face of one of the angels, as well as the subtle effects of glazing

<p><em>Fig. 10. a, b and c</em></p>

Fig. 10. a, b and c

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