Liberty Leading the People‘s true colors revealed

Liberty Leading the People, French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix’s iconic tribute to freedom won by armed revolution, has been restored to its brilliant original colors. Eight layers of oxidized varnish, applied in misguided previous attempts to revive its colors that backfired spectacularly when they yellowed, were removed. The heavy grime and dust that had settled in the varnish layers were removed with them.

The allegorical representation of Liberty as a bare-breasted woman in a Phrygian cap brandishing the French tricolor flag in her right hand and a bayonetted musket in her left as she exhorts Parisians from different social classes to the barricades was a depiction of current events, not the French Revolution of 1789. Delacroix painted it in October 1830, just three months after the July Revolution that had driven King Charles X (youngest brother of the guillotined Louis XVI) to abdicate and enthroned his distant cousin Louis Philippe I as constitutional monarch.

Louis Philippe’s Ministry of the Interior bought the painting in 1831, seeing it as great PR for the “citizen king” who had come to power thanks to the revolution it depicts. They even planned to hang it in the throne room of the Palais du Luxembourg, then the home of the French senate. That plan fell by the wayside when another revolution, the anti-monarchist Paris Uprising of 1832 sparked by the death of popular reformist general Jean Maximilien Lamarque, suddenly made the idea of revolutionary violence, barricades and bodies stacked like cordwood distinctly less palatable to the government. It was returned to Delacroix who stashed it at his aunt’s house to keep it out of harm’s way.

It would not be seen in public again until after yet another revolution, the Revolution of 1848, established the Second Republic. It was only on display briefly and then went back underground until it reappeared in the Salon of 1855. Finally France, now on its Third Republic, bought the painting for good this time in 1874 and it entered the collection of the Musée du Louvre.

The first extensive restoration took place in 1949 to repair damage inflicted during the hasty moves museums were forced to do during World War II. After that, it received minor touch-ups and repainting on a regular basis. It was loaned out only once, to Japan in 1999, and at that time the frame was replaced.

The canvas is so large (8.5ft x 10.5ft), that it was taken down from the wall, the frame removed and the six-month restoration done in situ. Before the cleaning began, the painting was analyzed with X-ray, UV and IR imaging that were compared to archive photographs to give restorers a baseline to work from. They then tested the cleaning process on tiny snippets of the painting.

As the varnish layers were removed, details emerged that had been obscured by the flattening effect of the yellow varnish. Delacroix layered color and textures to create contrasts that differentiated figures in the complex, dynamic composition and covey the illusion of three dimensional depth. For example, the cleaning revealed that the boy with the pistol is actually running slightly in front of Liberty instead of by her side, that there’s a shoe in the bottom left that previously blended into the paving stones and how the facades of the buildings on the right are each different from the one next to it.

Liberty herself proved to be a surprising revelation. Her tunic, heretofore believed to be yellow, is actually light grey with yellow added more saturated at the bust and then thinning and fading down her legs. The thick, even yellow coverage was overpainting applied in a 1949 restoration.

Benedicte Tremolieres, one of the two restorers to clean the canvas, said it was “enchanting” to see the painting reveal its secrets.

Her colleague Laurence Mugniot agreed.

“Delacroix hid tiny dabs of blue, white and red all over in a subtle sprinkling to echo the flag,” she said.

She pointed for example to the “blue eye with a speck of red” of one of the characters.

Rare 18th c. clock returned to Brighton museum 23 years after theft

A rare 18th century musical automaton clock stolen from Preston Manor in Brighton in 2001 has been recovered by Sussex Police and returned to the museum. It was rediscovered when it was offered for sale at auction last year. The auction house subscribes to the Art Loss Register (ALR) due diligence service which checks items against the lost art database before a sale, and its experts recognized it as the stolen clock.

Lucy O’Meara from the Art Loss Register said: “The ALR’s research team identified the item as a match, despite extensive restoration and alteration to the clock.

“It had different urn finials and different feet making it appear at first glance to be a different clock. This was one of over 400,000 items our expert team checks against our database every year.

“Our recovery team used their detective skills to compare the wood grain which matched up exactly. After we identified the match, our team liaised with the auction house and notified Brighton & Hove Museums of the location of the stolen clock. Sussex Police’s Rural Crime Team then recovered the item from the auction house and returned it to the Museum.”

The clock was stolen on February 12, 2001, in broad daylight when Preston Manor was open to visitors. Staff pressed the alarm buttons and called the police but the thieves fled in a getaway car they had parked near the entrance. The Sussex Police investigated the theft, but no suspects were ever found. Two years later, the clock was sold at auction. At that time, the auction house had no information about its ownership history and it was not subscribed to the ALR, so the sale went through with nobody the wiser. The collector who bought it 20 years ago relisted it with the same auction house, only this time the ALR’s crack team stepped up to the plate.  The trail from the sale 20 years ago was too cold for the police to track down anyone involved in the theft.

The clock was made by Thomas Hunter Jr. of London, one of the top clockmakers in the country, in around 1760-70. It is a bracket table clock with painted maritime decoration above the clock face. It is both an automaton and a musical clock: ships above the clock face sail to the music every hour on the hour. The clock was acquired by the Stanford family of Preston Manor and was in the estate by at least 1905. It was placed in the south-facing Morning Room with a view of the sea, linking the maritime motif of the timepiece with Brighton’s own history as a seaside town.

When Preston Manor and its contents were given to the city in 1932, the clock was part of the gift. It quickly became one of the more popular features of the estate. Visitors assembled in the room to hear the music play and the ships sail among the painted waves. Brighton & Hove Museums plans to restore the clock back to working order so it can return to delighting visitors at Preston Manor.

Casa Buonarroti digitizes Michelangelo’s drawings

The Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence has embarked on a new project to digitize figure studies, architectural designs and handwritten notes by Michelangelo and make the ultra-high resolution images available on their website. The goal is to upload the most significant drawings in the Casa Buonarroti’s collection to create an online catalogue of Michelangelo’s greatest works on paper, and now first 20 pages have now been uploaded.

The 20 pages include some recto and verso (front and back) sheets, denoted on the thumbnail with two arrows in the upper right corner. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Michelangelo’s art and life, seeing, for example, an iconic image like the dynamic male nude preparatory study for his Battle of Cascina fresco on one side of the page and his literal shopping list on the other. Or anatomical studies for one of his Pietà sculptures backed by anatomical studies for figures in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

The digitization of these materials gives artists, scholars and anyone else with even a passing interest access to works that are too fragile to be widely handled. The paper has to be protected from exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels, so the sheets are kept in carefully controlled environments. The pages were conserved before digitization, removing the artifacts of previous interventions and revealing some drawings that were obscured by flawed restoration attempts. Each sheet is also extensively annotated with background information, transcripts of texts and historic and artistic commentary.

Here’s one passage from a Madonna and Child study illustrating how content-rich the curator’s comments are:

The observation of the drawing allows one to follow the entire compositional process. First of all, Michelangelo sketched out both protagonists in black chalk, with a highly spontaneous handling: the fast, parallel hatching is combined with a soft, loose outline, drawn with a tormented manner. Initially, the face of the Madonna appears faintly sketched to the left, intent on looking down, in profile, at the Child in her arms, to be modified and rotated up three-quarters to the right, while gazing into the distance with an absorbed expression. Perhaps lost in the premonition of future pains, the Virgin’s head is executed on a smaller dimensional scale than the rest of the imposing body and with much more finished results, thanks to a soft chiaroscuro obtained with a broad-tipped black chalk, which lends the face a veil of shaded melancholy. This initial phase of compositional analysis was followed by the pictorial deepening of part of the figure of the Infant Jesus, perfectly executed even in the colouring, thanks to the overlapping of multiple techniques, all typical of Michelangelo’s heritage. The artist outlined the profile, already characterised by numerous pentimenti, with a red chalk, which he used together with a very shaded black chalk also to model the body with its rosy complexion, and interpreted the precious chiaroscuro effects with highlights of white lead, applied with chalk for the parts in light, and retouches of brown ink wash, applied with a very fine-tipped brush, for the areas of greater darkness. At this point, Michelangelo had to abandon work on the sheet, leaving the drawing with a distinct difference in finish, intentional and related to his graphic interests.

Boston museum returns Egyptian child sarcophagus to Sweden

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has returned an ancient Egyptian clay child sarcophagus to Uppsala University’s Museum Gustavianum more than 50 years after it was stolen under mysterious circumstances.

Made of alluvial clay, the sarcophagus dates to the 19th Dynasty (1295–1186 B.C.). It is 43 inches high and vividly painted. The child is depicted wearing a headdress of blue and yellow stripes tied with a headband of white, blue and red lotuses. Lotus petals cover the collar on his chest. The head and chest are on a cut-out section that can be removed to access the interior. Beneath the collar are more lotus flowers, wadjet eyes and the goddess Nut with outstretched wings flanked by Anubis seated jackals. The bottom part of the sarcophagus is covered with hieroglyphs identifying the deceased as a boy named Pa-nefer-neb.

The MFA Boston acquired it in 1985, and the ownership record seemed to be thorough and above-board, even at a time when museum’s paid zero attention to that sort of thing. It was sold by one Olaf Liden claiming to be an agent of Swedish artist Eric Ståhl (1918–1999). A letter ostensibly written by Ståhl described how he had personally discovered the sarcophagus in Amada, Egypt, in 1937, and the Egyptian government had later gifted it to him for his aid in the archaeological rescue operations before construction of the Aswan Dam. The coffin’s authenticity was attested to in writing by Swedish experts.

It was the MFA itself that realized this story was complete fiction, that Ståhl was never involved in any archaeological excavations in Egypt, that the letter and authentication documents were forged and the sarcophagus had been purloined from the Swedish museum, smuggled to Boston and fraudulently sold. The trigger was the 2008 publication of previously unseen photographs from the archive of the Petrie Museum. The sarcophagus was in one of the pictures: a shot of a 1920 archaeological excavation in Gurob, Egypt, by the British School of Archaeology under the direction of British archaeologist Flinders Petrie. A note with the photograph stated the coffin had been given to Uppsala University in 1922 as part of the partage system that was common at the time. All institutions involved in digs got a cut of the artifacts, basically, in exchange for their funding and fieldwork.

MFA curators initiated an investigation and contacted the Gustavianum to let them know about the discrepancy. Provenance researchers from both museums cooperated and shared information during the process. They found that the sarcophagus went missing from the museum’s stores in 1970 or earlier. It was not deaccessioned or traded. Both parties came to the same conclusion: the coffin had been taken from the Gustavianum illegally and should be returned.

“It is very gratifying that this return has now come to pass. The child’s sarcophagus is an important item in our collections and it means a lot to the museum and the University that it has now been returned to us. The sarcophagus is an excellent complement to our Egyptian collections and will now be available for research,” says Mikael Ahlund, Museum Director of Gustavianum, or Uppsala University Museum. “But the sarcophagus needs some work and it will be some time before it can be shown to the public in Gustavianum,” he adds.

You can see the petite coffin being unpacked upon its return to Sweden in this video. 

Garforth Roman lead coffin to go on display

The Roman lead coffin discovered in Garforth, near Leeds, in 2022 will go on display for the first time in an exhibition at the Leeds City Museum next month.

The coffin was unearthed in an excavation of a previously unknown cemetery containing burials of more than 60 men, women and children from the late Roman and early Saxon periods (5th-8th centuries). The lead coffin was used as the inner lining of a larger wood coffin which has decayed leaving only the metal interior in place. Lead coffins were expensive and rare, only affordable by the elite of Romano- British society. Pieces of jewelry — a bracelet, glass bead necklace and ring — were found inside the coffin, confirming the aristocratic status of the deceased.

When it was first discovered, the skeletal remains of an adult woman between 25 and 35 years of age were found inside the coffin. Later analysis of the contents of the lead coffin found the partial remains of a young child buried at the same time as the woman.

The coffin and its lid are currently being conserved and stabilised for display at Leeds City Museum, as part of the new exhibition Living with Death.

Kat Baxter, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of archaeology, said: “This is a truly unique and remarkable find which has potentially huge implications for our understanding of the history of early Leeds and those who made their home here.”

She added: “The discovery of the remains of a second individual within the coffin is fascinating, particularly as they belonged to a child.

“It poses some interesting questions about how people more than 1,600 years ago treated their dead.”

Ms Baxter explained the Roman lead coffin was the only one of its kind ever discovered in West Yorkshire.

“We’re delighted to be able to display the coffin so quickly after excavation, and we’re looking forward to sharing this amazing piece of history with our visitors,” she said.