A New Look at the Collections of the Musée Cognac-Jay

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
The Prophet Balaam’s She-Donkey, 1626
Oil on Panel - 63 x 46.5 cm
Paris, Musée Cogacq-Jay
Photo : Musée Cognacq-Jay/Roger Viollet

2/10/12 - Hang - Paris, Musée Cognac-Jay - A masterpiece is above all an object which undergoes the wear and tear of time, the changes in taste and scholarly findings. The Musée Cognac-Jay is inviting visitors to rediscover their collections by taking a close look at the patina of time. Painting on canvas or wood, marquetry or upholstered furniture, terracotta sculpture...each object presents specific conservation, renovation and restoration problems. Though restorations must be reversible, legible and not alter the nature of the work since the signing of the Venice Charter in 1964, this has not always been the case.
Fourteen explanatory panels dealing with these various problems are scattered throughout the museum using examples of objects on view in the respective rooms. The didactic theme addresses the general public as does the publication behind this hang : written by Georges Brunel and José de Los Llanos, it is in the form of a dialogue between two women visiting the Musée Cognac-Jay. This approach makes the subject more attractive but the conversations are sometimes burdened with useless remarks and chapter titles are not always clear.

Among the highlighted works, The Prophet Balaam’s She-Donkey, a surprising work by Rembrandt, painted on two joined panels, reminds us that the conservation and restoration of a painting depends first on the type of support, canvas or wood. By way of introduction, this masterpiece which had its varnish lightened so as to freshen up the colors, tells us that the purpose of a restoration is not to recover the original state of a work - in fact, it does not have the power to do so -, but rather to preserve it for future generations.
Boucher’s Returning from the Hunt (1745) belonged to a series of four over-door works today held in different museums ; yet its curved format became a sharply defined rectangle obtained by enlarging it in the 19th century. It went from being a decorative piece intended for viewing up high, to a cabinet painting. Restorers and curators today consider that these transformations are an integral part of the history of the work and did not attempt to return the canvas to its original format.
The comparison of two children’s portraits by Greuze shows us the dangers involved in relining a canvas, also visible on Tiepolo’s bozzetto, Cleopatra’s Banquet. One of the portraits was relined, the other was not ; the first is more uniform and smoother, thus more attractive than the second which is more crackled. But appearances can be deceiving because the first has in fact lost its depth and the subtlety of the artist’s stroke.
Picture frames also require attention ; they are both useful objects and an "objet d’art" which at times may need to be restored. Their compatibility with the painting they hold is another question. Thus, the Rembrandt displays an 18th century French frame which curators have chosen to keep.

Clodion’s terracotta, Bacchante with Thyrsus allows us to look at problems found in sculpture. With an amputated arm, it shows that, unlike a painting, this lack does not hamper the eye which in fact reconstructs it and gives the work its "potential unity". A restoration is therefore not approached in the same way (at least in a museum, whereas over zealous art dealers will replace an arm or a leg on a sculpture to sell it better).
Finally, furniture poses many problems, marquetry comes off, upholstery becomes used. In the 19th century, the owners of a series of eight armchairs placed a high value on the Beauvais tapestry produced after Boucher designs ; the woodwork however was considered less valuable and the family had them redone in a Louis XVI style. On the contrary, a "Polish" bed, perhaps by Georges Jacob, displays a fabric woven twenty years ago, identical to the 18th century original. To overcome the ravages of time, some choose to eliminate its traces and, along with it, the object itself.

La Patine du Temps. Conservation et restauration des oeuvres d’art, from 11 September to 30 December 2012.
Musée Cognac-Jay, 8 rue Elzévir, 75003 Paris. Tel : 01 40 27 07 21. Open every day except Monday, from 10 am to 6 pm.

Georges Brunel and José de Los Llanos, La Patine du Temps, 2012, Collection Petites Capitales, Paris Musées, 70 p., 12€. ISBN : 9782759601547.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, jeudi 4 octobre 2012

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