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Jeppson Idea Lab

Portrait of a Man by Anthony van Dyck March 14 - October 11, 2015


entering on a major conservation treatment by former Mellon Fellow Matthew Cushman, this Idea Lab presentation looks at a portrait of an unknown Antwerp man, painted by Anthony van Dyck very early in the artist’s career, just after his departure from Rubens’ studio. The conservation process revealed numerous changes to the sitter’s costume, to keep up with evolving fashions, and led to the discovery of the picture’s date. Below, read more about this fascinating project in an access magazine interview with Matthew Cushman. access: How did this painting by Anthony van Dyck come to be at WAM?

MC: The painting is in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), which is in the midst of extensive renovations and scheduled to reopen in 2018. With this loan KMSKA is able to house one of its paintings in a stable environment; an under-appreciated painting is closely studied, given conservation treatment, and exhibited; and the Worcester Art Museum is able to display a work by a major artist who is absent from its European galleries. access: Did you anticipate that there were mysteries beneath the surface, or was it a surprise?

MC: The changes in the sitter’s attire were entirely expected – they were visible to the naked eye as pentimenti (visible underlying images) – and we could guess the presence of the window behind the curtain from comparable van Dyck works from that period. However, the inscription at upper left was a surprise. Of the 160-plus paintings by van Dyck before he left Antwerp in 1621, only seven were known to carry an inscription with a date. Once we recognized the presence of letters and numbers under certain lighting conditions, we used traditional imaging techniques (infrared reflectography and X-radiography) to try to make the inscription legible. However, those technologies yielded no useful information. Using Reflectance Transformation Imaging to accentuate the contours of each character in the inscription, we were able to tease out the full inscription: ANNO 1619.

access: What did the conservation treatment entail?

MC: The conservation work involved two phases: cleaning and retouching. In the cleaning phase, discolored varnishes and old retouchings that had become visually inaccurate with age were removed. After applying a new varnish,

Matthew Cushman (right) and Nico van Hout, curator at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, pose with the van Dyck painting during its conservation treatment.

losses in the panel and in the paint layers were filled and inpainted using reversible materials to match their surroundings. Finally, some of the pentimenti were suppressed enough to not be visually distracting, and the area in the background that was covered with a very old overpaint was retouched to create a believable transition across the background.

The aim was to present the painting as a unified object, reflecting the state the painting was in when changes were made to the sitter’s costume. The treatment allows the many changes to be seen upon close inspection.

access: What do you hope visitors to the Idea Lab will take away from seeing Portrait of a Man and the story revealed in the exhibition?

MC: I hope that visitors will get a sense of the work that conservators do and the thought processes that go into conservation treatment. I also wish for visitors to gain an understanding of how small, sometimes hidden details can reveal information about the history of a work of art. But above all, I hope that visitors will have an opportunity to study the painting closely and appreciate van Dyck’s incredible talent even at nineteen or twenty years old.

Matthew Cushman served as a graduate intern in the Worcester Art Museum conservation department in 2006-2007 and as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in painting conservation from September 2010 - March 2014. Currently he is a conservator at Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, where he is working with a small collection of 19th-century portraits of Haitian heads of state.

Learn how you can support programs like this by calling the Development Office at 508.793.4325. Anthony van Dyck, Flemish, 1599-1641, Portrait of a Man (after treatment), 1619, oil on wood, on loan from The Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium


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