Occasionally we get a nice surprise when paintings created long ago are cleaned and restored. This happened in 2016–17, when Gabriel Revel’s Portrait of a Sculptor, ca. 1680, underwent conservation treatment by Nina Olsson here in Portland. Cleaning revealed a new compositional element: a statuette behind the sculpted head in the foreground, as seen in the main post-conservation photograph. Next, the pre-conservation photo shows the painting with the statuette painted over. The armless statuette had been fully defined by the artist, so we were left with a dilemma. Did the painter or his patron decide the portrait was better without it or had the statuette been eliminated from the painting by someone in the intervening three centuries?
It is not unusual to find a composition edited by later generations based on the taste or whim of an owner or restorer. For instance, complex Baroque compositions were sometimes simplified in subsequent centuries. As there was not definitive technical evidence, we had to decide whether or not to cover the statuette again. This kind of situation calls for collaboration between conservators and curators, who must weigh all the factors and try to put themselves in the position of the artist.
Obviously, we decided that the composition functioned better with the statuette. In particular, the raised thumb and finger of the sculptor seemed less awkward than before. Inevitably, the painting will need to be conserved again, so it will be possible to reverse our decision should later generations think that we were wrong. That said, kudos to Nina Olsson for a beautiful restoration of one of the Museum’s best portraits!
—Dawson W. Carr, The Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art
Gabriel Revel (French, 1643–1712). Portrait of a Sculptor, ca. 1680, oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Edwin Binney, 3rd, public domain, 68.34