David and Bathsheba – the restoration


Rediscovering Artemisia

Artemisia Gentileschi, Female head, preparation
for David and Bathsheba, 1614-1620 Private
collection, Florence

The recent revival and re-evaluation of Artemisia's courageous life and works piqued the interest of The Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts and Advancing Women Artists. Our commitment is to recognize, and support, the contributions of women to society and to the arts-past and the present-particularly those who have been influential in the development of the arts in Florence.

As part of our mission, we decided to fund the restoration of one of Artemisia's works: David and Bathsheba. Completed in Naples in 1635, the painting had been languishing in Pitti's storage deposits for centuries. It is not known how this work became part of the collection, but documents show that it hung in the grand duke's apartment in 1662. The work depicts the scene from the Old Testament when King David first glimpses the married Bathsheba while she is bathing. His subsequent seduction of her and the events that followed were thought to be the beginning of a divine curse on the House of David.

Artemisia's painting, particularly Bathsheba's face and body, was in a state of considerable deterioration and showed signs of decay; the painting's color was flaking off because of improper storage conditions and humidity damage. Nicola Ann MacGregor, Sandra Freschi and Elisabetta Codognato thus undertook a daunting task in restoring David and Bathsheba. Palatina Gallery director Serena Padovani, who directed the work, explains the delicate process: ‘Our task was to consolidate the painting's remaining color and improve the composition's legibility, lowering the numerous lacunae [missing pieces of paint] with neutral tones, so to obtain an image that is recomposed, rather than repainted.'

But it is perhaps the words of one of the restorers, Nicola Ann MacGregor, that best embody the unique nature of this project: ‘In all the 38 years of my career as a conservator in Florence, this is the first time I have ever restored a painting by a female artist. Being a woman myself, of course, this enhanced the sense of "bonding" nearly always established between the restorer and the author of the painting he or she is working on. What makes us particularly happy about this project is that a painting relegated to the deposits of the Pitti Palace is now, after our restoration, deemed fit for public exhibition.'

It is the Foundation’s greatest hope that this precious work be truly enjoyed by Florence's citizens, and visitors, and that its restoration may safeguard Artemisia Gentileschi's mastery for future generations.

The above text is an excerpt from the Article ‘Rediscovering Artemisia: work by an intriguing Baroque artist restored’ by Jane Fortune. The Florentine, Issue 91, Nov. 2008.

Read entire article


Restoring a masterpiece

Artemisia Gentileschi’s David and Bathsheba

Using the neutral-tone technique to improve image

In an era when women painters were extremely rare, Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome 1592 – Naples 1652/3), became a successful artist in Rome, Florence and Naples. She was trained as a painter by her father Orazio, an extremely skilled master. Following his guidelines, Artemisia elaborated her own personal style, influenced by Caravaggio’s dramatic naturalism and by the classicism of Giudo Reni and Guercino.

The painting of David and Bathsheba represents the initial part of the biblical story; the encounter between King David and Bathsheba gave rise to the dynasty from which the Messiah, Jesus Christ descended. Artemisia Gentileschi painted at least six other versions of this subject, which suggests that her presentation of this biblical theme was received with significant success.

The version exhibited here was painted in Naples around 1635. It was then sent to Florence and received by Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici who hung it in one of the rooms of his apartments at Palazzo Pitti. In 1663, the Grand Duke ordered the painting to be copied by court tapestry maker, Pietro Fèvère, who created the tapestry exhibited here. Later, the painting was removed and improperly stored, which resulted in serious damage. David and Bathsheba’s extensive degradation is also due to inappropriate restorations which caused significant paint-loss all over the painting’s surface.

Thanks to Advancing Women Artists Founder, Jane Fortune, and The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, David and Bathsheba has recently undergone a new restoration process geared toward solving its conservation problems and rendering the remaining image more readable. After the consolidation of its flaking color in various areas, the pictorial surface was improved, using ‘intoned neutrals’ which lowered its numerous lacunae, so to obtain an image that was recomposed, rather than repainted.

TEXT taken from the display panel exhibited next to David and Bathsheba in Palazzo Pitti’s Palatina Gallery, during the exhibition ‘A Christmas Gift to the City of Florence’.


A technical focus

Restorer Nicola Ann MacGregor at work

During the pre-restoration process, we discovered that no restorations of Betsabea al Bagno are recorded prior to 1970 when a consolidation of flaking colour was carried out in the laboratory of Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Previously, the painting had been relined—presumably between 1966 and 1970—in the Soprintendenza laboratories using a wide weave canvas applied to a new extendable stretcher. A varnishing and colour consolidation was later carried out in 1991.

Before the present restoration, the surface of the painting was in a state of considerable deterioration, in addition to the typical signs of decay provoked by flood damage. Under a very glossy and yellowed varnish, we found extensive areas of colour loss distributed all over the pictorial surface. This loss was particularly evident round the edges and in the large area located on the upper central portion of the painting where a vertical lacuna stretched from the sky down to the maid’s hand on Bathsheba’s right side. The darker parts of the painting were characterised by varnish and old retouching which were oxidised and opaque; dirt and residue nestled in the fillings, cramming the grooves of the canvas weave. During a past restoration, the painting’s missing areas had been retouched in a mid-grey tone, distracting from the image’s overall readability. In addition, patches of darkened, bare canvas had been left unfilled, and the results were particularly disturbing on Bathsheba’s flesh.

Our efforts during the present restoration began with the removal of the yellowed varnish and all the painting’s invasive retouching, including the grey inpainting used on the areas subject to extensive paint loss. This initial process was essential so that we could then remove the old gesso fillings underneath; incredibly, four different layers and colours were found, as remnants of the various restorations the painting has undergone in the past.

We consolidated the detached colour in the central area of the painting with a thermoplastic acrylic fixative before applying a new white gesso filling. Once the filling was smoothed, it served as a base for the retouching process to be carried out in two separate phases. During the first, we applied watercolour, while the second phase, after varnishing, called for the use of pure pigment in mastic varnish to complete the process with glazing.

Due to the number and extent of paint losses, in addition to the numerous parts of abraded colour round the lacunae, we chose to adopt an inpainting method. In making this restoration choice, it was also essential to consider the original paint’s damage and the various areas of wear which revealed a dark under-layer. The inpainting method was chosen to try and minimise the disturbing effect of the missing areas whilst avoiding any repainting or reconstruction of the original. To achieve this goal, we used a neutral brownish tone whose intensity and tone was well adapted to the surrounding original colour. Our aim was to make the paint losses recede so as to permit an easier reading of the image without invasive invention or reconstruction.

Nicola Ann MacGregor, Restorer