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Reconstructing the unusual composition of Artemisia’s ‘Self Portrait’ | National Gallery

September 16, 2019


Well the painting is back upstairs now
after the relining, which you’ve seen in previous films, and I’ve started doing
some of the retouching of the losses and damages and one of the first things
I have done is to start to put in some of the colour to simulate Artemisia’s
priming layers, her ground, around the edges where there are larger losses or
indeed in this case additions and I think that’s a good starting point to
discuss questions of the format of the picture because I think you’ve noticed
that it is quite a square picture and the format is an unusual quality of her
works at this time and it’s one of the things we’ve had to think about in terms
of how we put the picture back together. – I mean, I think we knew quite early on
that the picture has probably been reduced a little along the top. It is
really odd that the pearl on this sort of pinnacle here, it’s sort of cut through, but
the question was, sort of, how much and obviously, during the relining process,
we look to physical evidence on the back, on the canvas itself. I mean, also as a
curator, you hope there’s some sort of visual evidence of an engraving after a
picture or a drawing or some sort of visual record and unfortunately in this
case there really isn’t so we really had to go on weighing up the evidence and
instinct a bit as well. So, as we look at the canvas itself as an
object, we can gather certain ideas, certain evidence, that help us understand
the format. One of the things we look for is a sort of pattern of what we call
cusping or scalloping and that’s when the canvas has got a rather squiggly
pattern in the canvas weave and that’s caused by the initial distortion of
stretching the canvas before any of the under layers went on when the canvas was
first being prepared for painting and when that priming layer goes on, or
layers go on, it has the effect of locking in these kind of distortions in
the canvas and when you see those kind of squiggly lines that scalloping it’s
usually very good evidence that you are at or near an original edge that was
turned over. In this case, this whole strip coming down inside we know, from
evidence looking at the back during relining, was part of an edge that went
around the strainer and was subsequently folded out during an old lining so we
have good evidence of that contour scalloping on the right side and at the
bottom and we can be quite confident about those being more or less
in this case definitely the original contours, the original edges. On the other
sides, left and top, we have less of that scalloping. Now that doesn’t necessarily
mean that those edges are missing quite a lot – sometimes you can infer that – but
sometimes these canvases were primed with much larger sizes and then trimmed
afterwards so the absence of scalloping doesn’t necessarily mean you’re missing
a bit but this is one of those interesting things where you think about
weighing up physical evidence and then comparing it to other works and thinking
about a kind of general taste and period inclination and in compositional
interest, particularly where she’s concerned in Florence. Especially at this time because looking at other pictures from this period in
Florence they’re all very tightly cropped. They’re quite square in format, not
exactly square like this one is, but she’s obviously filling up the canvases
right to their very edges and as you said this is absolutely its original
lower edge and look how closely that sleeve, you know, almost abuts that edge. I mean you and I aren’t in total
agreement about the left: I feel there’s a little
bit more missing but we took the view, after lots of consideration, to actually
not add something there where we don’t really know for certain it was there but
I think it’s reasonable to assume that at the top, you know, she wouldn’t have
left, you know, half a pearl and whether there was only a centimetre, two centimetres, an inch, we just don’t
know that and I think the decision we’ve made is a measured one
and it’s something obviously that’s not irreversible and it can
always be framed out. I mean, that’s what we’re going to do here: the frame will, in
fact, cover that and I feel also that the tight cropping is sort of intrinsic to
this moment in her art. It’s not just a compositional thing but it brings that
figure right in to the foreground and kind of makes the connection with the
figure much stronger and this white sleeve which we’ve talked about before,
especially now that she’s been cleaned, you can see the white of her sleeve sort of jut
out and you really feel the projection of this and I think that working
together with this very tight composition it’s a very, very, you know,
intentional thing on behalf of the museum. – And I think these decisions are going to
become even more important and more telling when we get around to trying out
frames and framing because the tight crop, working in the frame, really will do
very interesting things, quite powerful things, I think, to the illusionism of how
the picture’s fitted in this shape so I mean we’ve taken the view that,
although we can’t know for sure if the halo was completed, we certainly feel
pretty confident that this pattern of jewels must have been completed in this
one so we’ve decided, in the first instance, to reconstruct and, you’ll
see that as the retouching progresses, a band across the top of about between
one and a half and two centimetres which I will reconstruct to match the
surrounding paint, finishing this jewel, taking the halo and still having a
slight crop at the top of halo and finishing the palm frond and we’ve
decided, I think, and I certainly believe that the idea of finishing that
jewel is enough to complete the composition satisfactorily and we can
always leave it a slightly unknown, open question as to how much more might have
been there but it feels measured and reasonable in terms of getting the
picture to work properly and in keeping with this idea of these
tight crops we see in other works from this time. you

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