Restoration of Plato's School

A public restoration

Musée d'Orsay - Salle 59© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Boegly
For the first time, the Musée d'Orsay is offering you the chance to witness a procedure that, normally, takes place in the privacy of storehouses or workshops: the restoration of a painting, The School of Plato, by Belgian symbolist Jean Delville.

Since 1980, this great composition has not been retouched in any way. Today, a cleaning of the pictorial layer and a reprisal of some of the former restorations has become necessary. The work of the restorers will take place over several days, before the public, in the room itself where the painting usually hangs.

From 9 to 12 April 2013, a rare occasion to see how the works in the national collections are conserved and maintained.

The Artwork

In the late 19th century, Belgium was one of the great centres of European Symbolism, and Jean Delville, born in Louvain, expressed the most esoteric side of this movement. With L'Ecole de Platon [The School of Plato] , he presents one of the most personal representations of classical philosophy.

The work was originally intended as a decoration for the Sorbonne, but was never installed. This explains the monumental size of the canvas, and the use of pastel shades in the style of Puvis de Chavannes, the greatest painter-decorative artist of the time. Delville depicts Plato as a Christ-like figure surrounded by twelve disciples. The androgynous appearance and lascivious poses of the beautiful young men and the setting - an idealised garden where it is easy to picture them cavorting and freely embracing - impart an atmosphere of homosexual sensuality.
Thus, despite the many classical references in the Mannerism of the nudes, the frontality and symmetry of the composition, this representation of the philosopher remains ambiguous, with an aspect that is both religious and erotic.

Jean DelvillePlato's School© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

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Historical Background

AnonymousView of a room in the Musée du Luxembourg© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
This work was started in Rome (Delville won the Belgian Prix de Rome in 1895) and was finished in Brussels in 1898. Exhibited later that year in Paris and Brussels, it was bought by the Musée du Luxembourg in 1912. In a letter addressed to Léonce Bénédicte, the curator who instigated the purchase of his work, Jean Delville pointed out how fragile the borders of his canvas had become “having been damaged quite badly during hanging and removal as the work was moved around”. It was on display until 1922 then stored, rolled up, in a number of reserve collections, incurring further damage.

In 1979, when the Musée du Louvre decided to exhibit it, it was found to have tears, holes and splits, and its surface was covered with a grimy yellow film. The Restoration Commission at the time agreed to have it lined, cleaned and the paint losses reintegrated. The painting was not varnished in order to preserve its matt appearance.
Since 1980, the painting has been regularly checked, the dust removed and has undergone no further restoration.

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Technique and current interventions

The support (H: 2.50 m x W: 6.10 m) is a stretched canvas on a frame. This support is covered with a thin white ground layer through which the weave texture of the canvas is visible. Compositional sketches can be detected on top of this ground layer. The oil paint is applied quite flatly.
The presence of the weave texture of the canvas (detail 1) and the use of thin paint as a binder on an absorbent ground layer results in an overall matt appearance. Delville used this technique to achieve a finish similar to that of Italian fresco paintings.
A predominance of blues and greens used for both landscape and flesh tones creates a twilight atmosphere.

The support is in a good state of conservation but there is a light deposit of dirt and some small separations on the paint layer. Following the reintegration of paint losses in 1979, there are some slight colour discrepancies. Matt and gloss areas are also evident in raking light.
A programme of conservation and repair to the paint layer will be sufficient to strengthen the work and improve its appearance. This work will include re-fixing the areas that have lifted, cleaning the surface of the painting and further retouching of the previously inpainted areas.

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