The Return of the Monk

By Alte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Two masterpieces
by Caspar David Friedrich – The Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakwood –
have been undergoing two years of conservation, thanks to the generous support
of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung. During their work on the
paintings the conservators Kristina Mösl and Francesca Schneider discovered
astounding details.

Monk by the Sea, pre-condition before restoration (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

As
good as new! Caspar David Friedrich is back in the Alte
Nationalgalerie

Decades of neglect and historical restorations had taken their toll on these two paintings, and even the fragile brushwork gave cause for concern. These factors, causing changes and material losses, and several layers of yellowed varnish, meant that there was not much left of the original appearance of the paintings, two of the best-known examples of German Romanticism. 

Abbey among Oak Trees, pre-condition before restoration (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

From May 2013 to January 2016 the conservation department at the Alte Nationalgalerie examined these two paintings technologically and gave them thorough conservation treatments. Starting from the results of the examinationa conservation concept has been developed involving the assistance of several institutions and experts, which became an extremely exciting process leading to some incredible discoveries.

Monk by the Sea, cross-section P2 from sky area (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Technological
findings: deciphering layer by layer

A painting on canvas in the early nineteenth century usually consists of many different layers. The first layer comprises a stretcher for holding the canvas. Then there is a saturating layer of glue, known as sizing. On top of this came one to three layers of priming, mostly comprising chalk and oily binding medium. Only then came the artistic layers: the underdrawing of the composition, the underpainting as preparation for the mostly multiple layers of paint and finally the varnish, a protective top layer which also gave the colours more saturation. Modern scientific conservation takes this layered structure as its starting point and falls into three phases: firstly the materials (the technological findings) and their state of preservation are examined, then a concept is drawn up on the basis of these findings, and then the painting can finally be conserved and restored.

Abbey among Oak Trees, cross-section P4 from sky area (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Caspar David Friedrich painted on a fine linen weave of flax fibre. The stretchers have not been preserved. The Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakwood are both painted on canvases originally joined on the same roll of fabric. The canvases have three priming layers. The bottom layer is coloured with a brilliant red pigment and is followed by two light brown layers. While the first two primings were applied with a palette knife, the third seems to have been applied with a roller; it has a finely structured surface, which Caspar David Friedrich was able to make excellent use of in his painting technique.

Monk by the Sea, infrared image (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The artist drew the underdrawings for his compositions in pencil on this priming. These underdrawings have been rendered visible using infra-red light; they are richly detailed and were obviously very important in the artist’s search for pictorial expression.

The painting of both works continues with a very thin underpaint. The Abbey has just one layer of paint over this. The Monk on the other hand has two layers and was originally conceived as a dark blue painting. Friedrich later laid a second paint layer over the middle section of sky in light blue, pink and white. The artist used white lead with a little ochre, green, brown and black pigment. He also used the blue pigment smalt, probably for its semi-transparent nature. By combining a specific technique allowing the thinnest of paint layers to accumulate into the depths of the structured priming resulting in very fine points of colour, the artist avoided visible brushstrokes and created almost continuous gradations of colour.

Abbey among Oak Trees, cross-section P2 from ground area (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Soon after they were finished, the two paintings were covered with an egg-white varnish, of which slight residues still remain. It is not known whether this varnish was applied in Dresden by the artist himself or in Berlin by someone else. Temporary egg-white varnishes were recommended in the 19th Century for freshly-painted oil pictures as this gave them the necessary saturation effect while still allowing the oil to dry. These egg-white varnishes were later rinsed off and replaced with the final varnish, usually a natural resin.

Monk by the Sea, reverse side, stretcher (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

State
of preservation: damage from ironing and loss of colour

The present stretchers can be dated to around 1827. Unlike the Abbey, the Monk has been newly stretched at least three times.

Abbey among Trees, raking light (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The canvases have undergone especially calamitous changes. During preparations for the great 1906 exhibition of ‘A Century of German Art 1775-1875’ in which Friedrich’s works were shown to a wide audience again for the first time, the two paintings were reinforced with a second canvas. This ‘lining’ with additional fabric glued over the whole of the reverse side of the original canvas was intended to stabilise the paintings and mend tears and holes. But this entailed considerable damage to the paintings; the edges of the canvases were trimmed and new, coarse canvas was ironed on with a mixture of wax and resin. Lumps of incompletely melted wax made the canvas lumpy, while the heat and pressure caused large-scale damage to the primings and paint layers. Several imprints of the iron can still be seen on the front of The Monk by the Sea. The missing sections caused by this and other damage were simply filled and then painted over.

Monk by the Sea, dotted retouchings, whitish discoloured (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A hundred years later the materials used were heavily discoloured and brittle. The dotted retouchings applied during restoration in the 1920s had turned whitish and gave the false impression of clouds of mist over the sea. The blue pigment smalt in The Abbey in the Oakwood had lost some of its colour in a slow chemical reaction that is irreversible. It is hard to determine how much the colours have changed, but the painting originally must have had much more of a blue tone.

Monk by the Sea, intermediate state during varnish removal (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The greatest harm to the overall appearance of the two paintings has been done by the up to seven layers of varnish that have been applied over the decades. The heavy yellowing of these coatings has caused extreme colour shifts, especially in the blue areas. In some places, the varnishes were permeated with microscopically small cracks which caused heavy reflection of light and made them lie over the layers of colour like a milky veil.

Abbey among Oak Trees, intermediate state during varnish removal (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Conservation and restoration: re-establishing readability

After thorough examination of the paintings a detailed plan was drawn up for securing and exposing what is left of the original substance. To get as close as possible to the original condition, much of the historical restorations were undone. All of the conservation materials are reversible and non-ageing.

Abbey among Oak Trees, intermediate state after removal of old putty and retouching (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The linings of the canvases mentioned above were left there, as removing them would have exposed the paintings to heavy mechanical stress. The paint layer was stabilised and the surface cleaned and made ready for the varnish removal. Badly integrated, discoloured filling, retouchings and over-painting from earlier restorations were removed. The Monk by the Sea was also loosened from its stretcher which was enlarged so that it can do its job again. After the tension of the canvas had been adjusted for both paintings, the lacunae were refilled. An intermediate varnish was sprayed on to isolate the fillings and saturate the colours of the paint layer. Then the fillings were retouched.

Casa Bartholdy Hall in the Alte Nationalgalerie during the retouching (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The new retouchings were limited to reestablishing the readability of the artworks. The many small areas of losses and abrasion, were only suppressed optically in a few areas where they demonstrably falsified the paintings, in The Monk by the Sea especially at the edges of the clouds, which previously appeared as dark rainclouds.

Another thin layer of varnish was sprayed on to complete the conservation.

Restoration workshop in the Alte Nationalgalerie (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Result:
a new way of looking at the Romantic

The conservation of The Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakwood brought important discoveries to light. The purchase of the canvases from the same roll, for instance, shows that right from the start the artist planned the two works as companion pieces. In using commercially pre-primed canvases, Friedrich made use of materials that were fully of his time; but on the other hand he very deliberately deployed the colour tone and semi-transparency of the blue pigment smalt, which was hardly in use any more by the 19th century.

Monk by the Sea, infrared image (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In the special exhibition The Monk is Back, the underdrawings of the two paintings are being shown to the public for the first time as infra-red reflectograms giving an insight into the creative process. In The Monk by the Sea the emptying of the seascape has been made visible: by painting over three sailing ships that were originally planned the artist heightened the ‘infinite solitude’ in that ‘boundless waste of water’ that contemporaries such as Clemens Brentano and Heinrich von Kleist had never seen before in painting.

Abbey among Oak Trees, infrared image (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The structure of the perspective of the church architecture is clearly shown in the underdrawing of The Abbey in the Oakwood, and many details of the procession of monks can be seen, such as the crucifixes and prayer books in their hands.

Casa Bartholdy Hall in the Alte Nationalgalerie with monk at the Sea in the final state (left) and photo of the previous state (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Historical Retouchings had disturbed the clear structure of horizontals, ellipses and hyperbolae used in the paintings, and the conservation managed to bring back considerable calm to the composition. Overall, both paintings were in a better state of preservation than originally thought; for the Monk around 97 % of the original painting is preserved…

Casa Bartholdy Hall in the Alte Nationalgalerie with Abbey among Oak Trees in the final state (left) and photo of the previous state (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

…and for the Abbey 98 %; and 11 % and 8 % respectively could be revealed by removing overpainting and retouching. Removing the heavily yellowed varnish layers brought even more clarity and re-established the original gradations of colour.  After 200 years, the cool, blue tone dominating The Monk by the Sea and at least slightly discernible still in The Abbey in the Oakwood after the degeneration of the smalt, once again clearly shows how close the relationship is between these, the most famous pair of paintings from German Romanticism.

Monk by the Sea, final state after restoration (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

"Monk by the Sea", final state after restoration

Abbey among Oak Trees, final state after restoration (2015) by Caspar David FriedrichAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

"Abbey among Oak Trees", final state after restoration

Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Kristina Mösl
Concept / Realisation: Malith C. Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

www.smb.museum
Alte Nationalgalerie

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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