By Dean Yoder, Senior Conservator of Paintings and Head of Paintings Conservation
Venus Discovering the Dead Adonis, one of the most important and powerful Italian Baroque paintings in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), is undergoing a multiyear conservation effort (fig. 1).
The mythological story of Venus and Adonis owes its origin to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This interpretation is probably derived from the 1623 poem L’Adone by Giovanni Battista Marino, written in Italian and first published in Paris. The painting depicts the final moments of the story when Adonis dies in the arms of Venus, against whose wishes he had hunted a wild boar, which gored him. Roses fall from her hair and mingle with tears as she hovers over Adonis. To preserve the memory of her lover, Venus transforms his heart into a red anemone, or windflower.
As a child attending Saturday drawing classes at the CMA, I was always mesmerized by this dark, dynamic, and mysterious work. In my youthful mind, it exemplified an “old master painting,” well before my eye was trained to comprehend the picture’s condition. Serendipitously, 50 years later, I am conserving this very painting, working to unlock its full potential as a CMA masterpiece.
When the painting first entered the CMA collection in 1965, it was attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, one of the greatest Neapolitan painters of the 1600s. Only a few years later, Ribera scholars began to question the attribution because the painting was not stylistically consistent with his other works. The attribution was complicated by extensive damage and past restoration efforts that had prevented an accurate reading of the artist’s technique.
In the spring of 2021, the curatorial and conservation departments decided to investigate the painting’s potential for improvement. It was removed from the stairwell of the Reid Gallery and taken to the paintings lab for in-depth assessment and scientific analysis of its constituent materials. The purposes of these analyses were twofold: first, to provide as much information about the painting as possible in order to predict the success of a conservation treatment; and second, to document the materials and techniques used to create the painting. Understanding how an artwork was made can reveal much about the artist’s process, offering clues about their identity.
William Suhr was the last restorer to work on the painting. His 1964 treatment was state of the art at the time, but it never completely resolved many of the lingering aesthetic problems: poor saturation of the paint layer and a suffocating degree of retouching. Saturation refers to the ability of a varnish layer to penetrate deep into paint’s microscopic structure, enriching and deepening the color. Older paintings commonly suffer from this phenomenon, also known as blanching, as repeated varnish removal with strong solvents or other harsh cleaning agents can damage the integrity of the paint film, drawing out the oil binder and making the surface dull. As you can see from the image of the painting after Suhr’s cleaning, before retouching, the picture had sustained a striking amount of damage, which was fortunately limited primarily to the far left side and along the edges (fig. 2).
Suhr’s retouching covered both damage and remnants of original paint with thick, obfuscating restoration paint. His approach, considered heavy handed by today’s standards, was also likely driven by the fact that he was in private practice and did not have the luxury of time required to carefully reconstruct these damages in a more sensitive manner. Today, multiyear conservation projects are common, often involving several thousand hours of hands-on work.
After months of testing, scientific imaging, and analysis of materials, it became clear that Venus Discovering the Dead Adonis would greatly benefit from a complete removal of Suhr’s 1964 restoration. In the fall of 2021, work began to remove all the surface coatings and retouching applied by Suhr as well as residues from previous interventions. We discovered during the cleaning that older varnish residues left behind by Suhr were preventing paint saturation, so those residues were also removed, allowing for an enriching saturation that had been missing for decades (fig. 3).
The next step was to tone back all the exposed white fill material applied by Suhr and other restorers before him. These fills were structurally sound but were too smooth and out of place next to the heavily cracked and textured original paint. After the fills were toned with a color matching the original ground (preparatory) layer, texture was added to harmonize with that of the surrounding paint (fig. 4).
The entire painting was then varnished to achieve proper saturation to facilitate accurate color matching during the inpainting phase. Choosing the right varnish is a delicate and sometimes controversial decision for conservators, who hold strong beliefs about the ideal degree of saturation and reflectiveness. In this case, we wanted to use a varnish that had good saturation properties without being too glossy.
Reconstructing losses through inpainting can be one of the more exhilarating experiences for a paintings conservator. A great deal of patience and skill is required to visually reconstruct lost passages in a manner that does not interfere with the remaining original paint; inpainting should meld seamlessly with the existing paint surface. As the process progresses, passages of intact original paint emerge out of the chatter as the distracting damages recede (fig. 5).
Inpainting is guided by a certain amount of subjectivity, particularly regarding when to stop, and the ultimate goal is to present the painting as if it had aged normally without sustaining physical damage. Moderate levels of cracking and fading of pigments are considered acceptable, as they too have a certain aesthetic beauty.
One of the most exciting discoveries to date is finding an important character from the story: the deadly boar! For years, we understood that the two putti (cupids) on the far left of the painting were likely engaged in tying up the boar, which had been too damaged to be successfully reconstructed. However, once Suhr’s retouching and remnants from previous interventions had been removed, the boar’s snout, tusk, and eye appeared among a heavy band of old losses. The reconstruction of the boar, still in progress, completes both the story and the painting’s original composition (figs. 6 and 7).
One year into its treatment, with at least a year of inpainting to go, a new understanding of this masterwork is evolving. We already knew that the painting’s quality was extremely high and that it held a lot of promise. The extraordinary level of anatomical detail coming to light is only possible for an artist possessing great technical and observational skills. This is illustrated in the exceptional brushwork and mastery of shadow and foreshortening apparent in the twisted torso and outstretched arms of Adonis (figs. 5 and 7).
Once conservation is complete, curator of European art Cory Korkow and I believe an attribution will finally be close at hand.