Restoring Artemisia

Before Artemisia's 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' went on show, it underwent examination and restoration in the National Gallery's Conservation Department

The National Gallery, London

Pre-conservation image of ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ before conservation (2018) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

The picture as it entered the collection

It was with huge excitement that the National Gallery was able to acquire a newly-discovered work by Artemisia Gentileschi in 2018. 

For a painting that was over 400 years old it was in fairly good condition. 

Some of the varnish had discoloured and become somewhat opaque, making it harder to appreciate the depth of Artemisia's handling of the shadows.

There were areas of damage – a tear by Saint Catherine's wrist and, lower down, an uneven ridge along the seam created by Artemisia adding a strip of canvas to the bottom of the picture.

Here, and elsewhere, there were signs of previous restorations, all of which needed attention.  

Larry Keith, Head of Conservation at the National Gallery, led the work. 

In the following film clip he outlines the various steps.

The art restoration plan for Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria', presented by Larry Keith, Head of Conservation

Pre-conservation image of ‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ before conservation (2018) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

Once initial examinations were complete, Larry began by removing the old varnish and previous restoration layers from the bottom left-hand corner of the picture. 

Curator Letizia Treves then came to the studio to see what was revealed.

It's such a 17th-century thing to do. Larry Keith in conversation with Letizia Treves.

Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' during conservation in 2018 (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

After cleaning, the next stage was to remove the old canvas used to back Artemisia's original painting and replace it with a new lining which would give the picture proper support.

Thought was then given to the subtle alterations made to the picture from earlier restorations.

For instance, did Artemisia originally leave one finial of Catherine's crown cut off by the top of the picture and with only a hint of its pearl? 

What about the additional narrow strip down the right-hand edge that widened the composition? 

Should these later revisions to Artemisia's work be kept during the next stage of retouching the damaged areas?

In addition to using physical evidence to inform what decisions to make, knowledge about Artemisia's artistic aims were taken into consideration.

In the following clip, Letizia Treves explains.

Reconstructing the unusual composition, with Larry Keith and Letizia Treves.

Head of Conservation Larry Keith working on Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' (2018) by The National Gallery, LondonThe National Gallery, London

Larry began the process of retouching the damaged areas. 

All National Gallery retouching is done on top of the varnish, protecting the original surface, using modern, stable paints. All stages are fully documented and reversible.

In the next clip the transformation following the retouching process is revealed.

Retouching a 17th-century painting, with Larry Keith.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

The final stage in the restoration of Artemisia's picture was to choose a frame. 

A number of 17th-century Italian frames were tried out before the right one was found. 

Peter Schade, Head of Framing, adapted it to fit the picture and in this clip, the result is unveiled. 

Framing Artemisia with the National Gallery Framing Department

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

Only months after the picture entered the Gallery, unrestored and unframed, Artemisia's Self Portrait as Catherine of Alexandria went on show to the public. 

Artemisia's 'Self Portrait' as Saint Catherine of Alexandria' goes on display

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