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Velázquez’s equestrian portraits of Philip III and Margaret of Austria regain their quality and original composition Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Museo del Prado today presented some of the most important restoration projects that it has undertaken this year, sponsored by Fundación Iberdrola in its capacity as “Protector Member” of the Restoration Programme. The three restoration projects presented today also relate to the re-hang of the Museum’s collections, a programme entitled The Collection: The Second Expansion Plan. The programme’s aims include equipping the works on display with the museological resources necessary for their optimum presentation, as well as analysing and reviewing their of conservation and undertaking restoration when necessary.

Velázquez’s  equestrian portraits of Philip III and Margaret of Austria regain their quality and original composition

Within this context of reorganising and improving the display context of the Museum’s collections, in particular the Velázquez collection (the re-hang of which was completed last year with the exception of of these two works), the Museum has now restored Philip III on Horsebackand Margaret of Austria on Horseback. These two monumental equestrian statues were painted by the artist with the help of assistants for the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro Palace as part of a series that included the similarly famous equestrian portraits of Philip IV, Isabel of Bourbon and Prince Baltasar Carlos.

The recent restoration of the two canvases in question, undertaken by Rocío Dávila, has allowed for the recuperation of their original pictorial values, which were notably affected by accumulation of dirt and alteration of the varnish, which changed the chromatic relations within each painting, dulling the contrasts and creating a “veil” that produced a negative effect by reducing the sense of pictorial recession. In the case of Philip III on Horseback these problems also prevented an appreciation of the lighting effects in the sky against which the horse and rider are set.

In addition, in the mid-18th century both canvases were enlarged with the addition of strips to the left and right sides in order to make them the same size as the other works in the series when they were installed in a newly designed room in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The addition of these strips considerably affected a formal reading of the two canvases, particularly in the case of Philip III on Horseback. Velázquez originally devised a foreshortened composition that he emphasised through the painting’s markedly horizontal format, resulting in a vigorous, dynamic image to which the luminous sky also contributed. His intention was thus to offer a different solution to the one that he deployed in Philip IV on Horseback. The additional lateral strips changed the artist’s original concept by producing a less vertical format that diminished the effect of foreshortening and thus resulted in a less powerful, dynamic image. In the case of Margaret of Austria on Horseback the additions also affected a reading of the canvas although not in such a pronounced manner. It detracted from the majestic horse and also altered the landscape, which originally consisted of distant mountains that were transformed into hills with streams.

The fact that the 18th-century additions were painted on a preparatory layer different to the original one has meant that the pigments in the two areas behaved differently over the course of the centuries. As a result, the restoration of the two paintings has not only involved cleaning them but also recuperating their original perceptual conditions to the greatest degree possible.

Philip III on Horseback and Margaret of Austria on Horseback are now on display in Room 12, fully restored to their original appearance, which was partly lost over the course of two-and-a-half centuries for the above-mentioned reasons. While it was previously difficult to appreciate the merit of these works within the group (other than for their purely iconographic merits), these are now absolutely evident. A comparison, for example, between the equestrian portrait of Philip IV and the one of his father reveal the different approaches used by Velázquez to represent the majesty of the two monarchs: the serenity of Philip, conveyed through his impassive expression and profile presentation, in contrast to the dynamism of Philip III, transmitted through the foreshortening of the horse and the luminous sky behind the figure. For all these reasons, the results of this recent restoration go beyond the two works in question in that they allow for a better comprehension of the entire series.

  • Interactive Viewer: Philip III, on horseback before and after restoration
  • Interactive Viewer: Margaret of Austria, on horseback before and after restoration​

The sleeping Ariadne

The sculpture of The sleeping Ariadne is on display in the Museum’s famous circular gallery (Room 74) known as the “Ariadne Rotunda”, the architecture of which has recently been restored. The sculpture was created during the reign of Marcus Aurelius as a variant of a 2nd-century BC Greek sculpture of a reclining Ariadne asleep on the beach at Naxos where Theseus had abandoned her after his adventure with the Minotaur. Ariadne was discovered there by Dionysius, who fell in love with her and made her his wife. The ornate, overlapping folds and the impressive sense of volume are typical features of the late phase of the Pergamon School, thus allowing the Greek original to be dated to around 150 BC.

At one point in the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), this sculpture, which had parts missing, was restored around 1670 by pupils of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the leading sculptor of the day. Most of the two arms were added, as were the nose, chin, a foot and other small parts. For this reason, the sculpture is also a historical document that reveals the taste of the early Baroque period and the criteria used for restoration at a time when the complete reconstruction of damaged classical statues was considered normal.

The joins between the original parts and the additions in The sleeping Ariadne had deteriorated, creating visible dark lines that prevented the work from being appreciated as a whole. In order to visually integrate the joins in order to perceive the work as a totality rather than as a sum of its parts, a complete chromatic reintegration was carried out. Watercolour was applied using the dot technique in order make the restoration obvious to the naked eye and was also limited to areas of losses while adhering to the criteria of reversibility. The restoration, undertaken by Sonia Tortajada with the assistance of María José Salas Garrido, involved not only the reintegration but also the cleaning of the entire surface in order to remove deposits of solid particles and later coatings. Finally, on the basis of preventative conservation, a stainless base was installed to act as a support when moving and installing the work.

The aim of the architectural renovation of Room 74 was to bring it in line with new museological requirements and to allow for better preservation of the works and a more attractive display. The old, painted wooden pedestals in the gallery were replaced by new ones of solid Macael marble. Their greyish-green tones create an agreeable contrast with the warm colour of the marble. The intention of this initiative, in addition to the updating of the security, lighting and climate control, has been to recuperate the original architectural structure of the gallery. As a result, more emphasis has been placed on the large central window and the two lateral ones, which open onto the Murillo Courtyard and allow natural light to enter, offering new viewpoints onto the architecture of the Villanueva Building while also allowing the sculptures in this gallery to be seen from the adjacent corridors and the lobby of the courtyard.

Fundación Iberdrola and the Museo del Prado

In November 2010, Fundación Iberdrola signed a collaborative agreement with the Museo del Prado through which it became “Protector Member” of the Museum’s Restoration Programme. In addition to contributing to the restoration of various works including the three presented today, Fundación Iberdrola agreed to sponsor grants for Training and Research into Restoration. The first round of awards of these grants took place in April 2011 and thus fulfilled the programme’s additional aim of completing the training of future specialists and of encouraging research in the field of restoration within the Museum.

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