The work Portrait of a Man in a Red Chaperon (presumed to depict Giovanni Arnolfini) from around 1435–38 is part of the Gemäldegalerie’s outstanding collection of paintings by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck (1390–1440/41). After undergoing extensive conservation and restoration work in 2021/22, it will be returning to the permanent exhibition Paintings from the 13th to 18th Century.
This modest panel depicts a man of about 40 in a green cloak and a crimson, intricately folded head-covering known as a chaperon. His slender face with his striking, prominent nose leaves no doubt that it is the same man as in Jan van Eyck’s famous double portrait in London (dated to 1434), which is generally considered to depict the merchant from Lucca, Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. However, there is no ultimate certainty about this identification.
Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of “Baudouin de Lannoy” underwent conservation and restoration work back in 2019. Portrait of a Man in a Red Chaperon is in similar condition, with its appearance marred by a thick and dull varnish and sections of old, discoloured retouching.
In preparation for comprehensive conservation and restoration work, technical studies are focussed on the painting’s restoration history, in order to better understand its current state. In the lead-up to the planned removal of the varnish, all layers of varnish, coatings and retouchings will be examined in detail, looking for possible remnants of an original coating.
The condition of the painting is characterised by a particularly thick layer of varnish consisting of multiple layers with embedded retouching – presumably originating from different centuries. Directly after the Second World War, it became apparent that thin layers of paint were blistering and detaching from the light-coloured ground. This problem is still acute today. On the green robe, this has caused multiple losses, which are now covered by old, discoloured retouching, giving the painting a patchy overall appearance. In the 1970s, first attempts were made to reduce the dull appearance of the varnish.
The technical studies, examination of the painting and of cross-sections revealed that the dull appearance of the painting was primarily caused by a grey layer, which is located beneath the varnish. This layer is also being removed during the current conservation work. However, because this material has proven itself to be highly insoluble, the method of removing it had to be modified and adapted individually. This work was supported by analyses carried out by the Rathgen-Forschungslabor.
The removal of the uppermost varnish layers will be carried out under a microscope in multiple steps in a meticulous and time-consuming process. In order to evaluate the results and monitor the process, UV radiation is used, which causes particular materials to fluoresce, providing an extremely detailed picture of the painting’s surface. Following this, the blistering will consolidated and the losses filled and retouched. Finally, a new, thin layer of varnish will be applied.
This artwork, with its fascinating painting technique and all its minute details, is expected to be back on display in the permanent exhibition Paintings from the 13th to 18th Century in late 2022.
Duration: November 2021 to September 2022
Contacts: Babette Hartwieg, head of the conservation department, Sandra Stelzig, conservator, Stephan Kemperdick, curator for early Netherlandish painting