By Elizabeth Kendall, Director and Chief Conservator, Parma Conservation, Ltd.

A Work of Art Isn’t Always What It Appears to Be


Over time a painting undergoes many changes; the varnish may darken and yellow, the paint may begin to flake, there may be buckling or bulges, there could be holes, tears or paint loss, or maybe simply a grimy, dirty surface on the paint layer.

The reasons for changes in a painting are endless; fluctuations in temperature and humidity, accidental damage, poor storage, flood or fire damage, insect infestations, mold colonies, exposure to direct sunlight, etc. The biggest culprit to change, damage and deterioration in a painting, however, is human negligence. Well meaning, but unprofessional cleaning or restoration is one example. Invasive methods and materials, such as overpainting, inappropriate coatings, non-reversible linings, and excessive flattening are all familiar examples of what a painting should not undergo.

In the history of painting restoration, one centuries-old practice was to re-work a painting in order to make it fit into the framework of a particular time period.

The featured painting is such an example. When first brought to the laboratory, it seemed to be a typical late 19th century Victorian portrait.Sideburns on a man’s face were common to the period, as was the dark, discolored varnish, and the weave of the retro canvas.

Upon closer examination, however, a very different scenario emerged. It was found that the painting had been “lined” with an old canvas that was not original to the piece. Through the meticulous removal of this lining, the original canvas was uncovered, and found to be 100 years older. 

Even more revealing was the precise examination of the paint and varnish layers. With the aid of a microscope and ultraviolet light, the presence of “overpaint” on the man’s face became very evident. Overpaint is a term we use to describe unoriginal paint. Solubility testing also confirmed two distinct and grossly discolored layers of varnish. Using low polarity gels and precise timing, the topmost varnish was removed, one thin layer at a time. With the original varnish still intact, it became clear that the sideburns were painted on top of the original varnish, meaning that they were not original to the painting.

The overpaint was carefully removed and what lay beneath proved to be far more valuable, clearly not from the Victorian Era. It was then decided to remove the original varnish, as it too was discolored (being a natural resin) and had greatly obscured the details in the painting. In the end, proper conservation had revealed the truth, not a 19th century Victorian portrait, but an exceptionally beautiful 18th century portrait from the English Colonial Era, attributed to the School of Gilbert Stuart.