In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists' secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.
For painting restorer Aldo Peaucelle, there are few hopeless cases. In his large, well-lit studio in Lyon, France, he points to a photograph of an antique painting he owns, depicting the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine. The painting is torn and cracked, and large areas of the pictorial surface have chipped off. It looks impossible to fix. "Oh, it's doable," responds Peaucelle. "The problem isn't feasibility; it's a matter of time. One day, I'll get it done."
Peaucelle's love of broken things started early. By age 12, he was collecting old, damaged objects and repairing them. "It was all kinds of things—clocks, leatherwork, sculptures," he recalls. "Little by little, I took an interest in frames, and that led me to paintings. When I turned 18, I bought two paintings with my first paycheck—which, by the way, was from a summer job as a museum security guard. The canvases were ripped, and I wanted to get them restored, but it was too expensive. So I bought a book on painting restoration and did it myself. It was a revelation—I loved the process and decided that's what I wanted to do with my life."
After five years of study, he set up his studio in Lyon, France, in 1995, and started working on paintings for private clients. "They were in ruins, most often. I kind of became known as the go-to restorer for lost causes. The more challenging it was, the more exciting it was for me." Slowly, work trickled in from museums as well, and today his clientele is evenly split between private collectors and institutions. "In France, most museums don't have a conservation lab, other than the very big ones," he explains. So when the work to be restored cannot travel to his studio (like a Monet he worked on last year, which was worth "a small fortune"), he brings his tools on site and sets up a makeshift laboratory.
To demonstrate the tools in question, Peaucelle grabs a canvas and heads into a small storage room in the back. "Let's pretend you're a client," he says. "The first thing I'd do, after observing the piece with the naked eye, is take a look under UV light." Those ultraviolet rays can highlight areas of overpainting and previous repairs. To inspect the surface topography of the canvas, he heads back into the main room to examine the canvas under raking light, which can point to cracks in the paint, or uneven tension in the canvas, for example. Nearby, an infrared camera is set up for the next step, which might reveal the presence of underdrawings, or evidence of changes in the composition.
Once he has a good sense of what he's working with, both inside and out, he can proceed with treatment. The most common issues, he explains, can be divided into two categories: problems with the support (such as a warped panel, a torn canvas), and problems with the pictorial layer (like dirt and paint loss). A torn canvas calls for surgical tools and precision: From the back, the original threads are reconnected, one by one, and affixed with an adhesive. On the front, remaining gaps are filled in with putty and retouched. If the painting has too many tears, a "doubling" technique might be used, wherein an entirely new canvas layer is added for reinforcement.
To show us the dramatic effects of a simple cleaning, Peaucelle grabs a painting he regularly uses for demonstration purposes. With a solvent-infused cotton swab, he strips away years and years of grime—usually a mixture of dirt, kitchen grease, cigarette smoke, and car pollution. The result is spectacular: Within a few minutes, areas that appeared murky and yellow are suddenly white again.
Once the surface is clean, a different solvent is used to remove any varnishes. That's the tricky part, as one swipe too many could accidentally erase part of the painting. "You just have to take it very, very slow," Peaucelle warns. Alongside him, two assistants are quietly retouching other paintings, filling in small areas of paint loss with a mixture of varnish and pigments.
"I don't do much retouching any more," adds Peaucelle. "I'm too much of a perfectionist; I don't know when to stop." When asked if he's ever had to give up on a painting, he makes it clear that's not his style: "For every problem, there is a solution."
A painting restored by Peaucelle, before and after treatment
To learn more about Aldo Peaucelle's restoration studio, visit his website (the text is in French, but pictures are worth a thousand words).