Video · Restoration of a masterpiece: Family Portrait by Edgar Degas

Restauration d'un chef-d’œuvre d'Edgar Degas
© Musée d'Orsay / Marie-France Gripois

A masterpiece from Degas’ youth, and the largest completed canvas he ever painted, Family Portrait testifies to the artist’s ties to Italy. No major restoration work had been undertaken on the painting for 40 years. However, a number of accidents that occurred early on in its history, along with the relentless passage of time, finally made its restoration essential. This was made possible thanks to the sponsorship of the Friends of Florence. The restored work is on display at our landmark exhibition “Manet/Degas” in spring 2023.

 

The Family Portrait had suffered four large tears early on in its history, which had been restored using pieces of relining on the back and mastics. Over time, these old restorations had started to protrude and even caused lifting problems. Irregular varnishing had also resulted in loss of definition of the composition’s figures and motifs, hues, grounds and depth. Relined before 1918 and restored in 1984, the painting had had no major work done on it for almost four decades. Our latest restoration also provided an opportunity to reassess this essential work. It was preceded by in-depth documentary research on its material history from the artist’s lifetime to its entry into the national collections in 1918. Examination of preparatory drawings and studies finally led to better understanding of the various phases in the composition’s development and the successive additions and modifications made to it.

Discoveries due to scientific imaging.

In parallel, the work was entrusted to the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF) for in-depth analyses using scientific imaging. Previous interventions on the painting were studied, along with its support and the paint surface. A full-scale imaging campaign was conducted, including comprehensive x-raying of the painting, infrared reflectography, infrared false-color photography and photography of numerous details under direct light. Results enabled clarification of the chronology of interventions on the painting. X-raying the work confirmed the presence of numerous pentimenti, while infrared reflectography revealed traces of preparatory drawings on top of the restoration mastics. The drawings showed that the artist had worked on the already torn canvas, so evidencing his involvement in its restoration. In addition, discovery of the restorer Momper’s brand on the stretcher (he was active in Paris between 1843 and 1888) suggests that he was responsible for the earlier relining and masticking operations. Finally, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy enabled better characterization of the painter’s palette, as well as more detailed knowledge of his artistic practices at this early stage in his career.

A work that is now more stable and easier to interpret

The study carried out prior to restoration, along with initial tests on cleaning the varnish, had demonstrated that the work was extremely dirty. Consequently, the restorers set themselves to cleaning the varnish, so revealing the full subtlety of the pictorial matter and restoring the painting’s luminosity, freshness and original colors. Work on the support – including removal of the canvas edging – revealed the presence of old newspapers along the work’s edges, used during the relining operation. Decryption of these newspaper fragments enabled us to date the work’s relining at around 1885, another major advance in knowledge of its material history. The research and interventions carried out on the Family Portrait have significantly improved the masterpiece’s stability, along with our knowledge of and ability to interpret it. It will be presented alongside Manet’s The Balcony at the “Manet/Degas” exhibition, which runs until July 29th 2023.

Images
Edgar Degas
Portrait de famille, entre 1858 et 1869
Musée d'Orsay
Achat, 1918
© GrandPalaisRmn (musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
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