Conservation of Supper at the Maison d’Or by Thomas Couture

Conservation fellow Fiona Beckett in the NGC conservation lab, treating Supper at the Maison d’Or by Thomas Couture [Supper at the Maison d’Or also known as Each Party has its Ending, 1855, oil on canvas, 180 x 228 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Presented by Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Rogers, VAG 31.101, Photo © NGC]

Thomas Couture was one of the most celebrated painters in Paris during his lifetime, and was renowned for his bold technique and sensational subject matter. His Supper at the Maison d’Or (1855) spent many years in storage after it was donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery, due both to the condition of the painting and damage to its original frame.

For the first time in decades, visitors can once again view this masterpiece in the exhibition Thomas Couture in the Studio, on view at the National Gallery of Canada starting 1 February 2014.

In this article, NGC conservation fellow Fiona Beckett offers an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the recent treatment of the painting.

Supper at the Maison d’Or depicts four figures following a night of drunken debauchery at the famous Maison D'Or in Paris. What I initially thought would be a simple aesthetic conservation treatment in fact became a much more complex process, because previous conservation campaigns as well as environmental factors had actually done a great deal of damage. Over the course of the treatment, however, the painting regained its original vitality, revealing a few surprises along the way.

At first glance, the surface looked a little brown and featured some strange textures, such as odd protrusions and dents. Before tackling these disfigurements, I conducted an in-depth analysis. This involved using: 1) a microscope to look at the paint; 2) ultraviolet light to look at the surface coatings; and 3) an infrared-sensitive camera to examine the artist’s preparatory work, including under-drawing.

The infrared image revealed Couture's alterations to the painting—namely, shifting the position of the courtesan and reworking his canvas. Through analysis, along with studying old handwritten documentation and books, I discovered more about Couture's painting technique. I also learned more about previous conservation efforts, including the addition of a wax lining and a glue lining (major treatments in which a second canvas is attached to the back of a painting).

Documentation complete and approvals granted, the conservation treatment could begin. First step: varnish removal. I gently removed the old varnish with cotton swabs and a solvent solution designed to take off the varnish but not the original paint. With the swabs measuring roughly 2 cm each, and a canvas surface measuring 4 square metres, varnish removal took about eight weeks—comparable to trimming a football field with a pair of shears.

Although slow, removing the varnish was gratifying, because it revealed brighter colours and allowed small tonal changes to emerge. For example, in the upper right quadrant, the light cast from the candle now came through in subtle shades of pink and green, previously masked by the old varnish. Along with the varnish, I removed old, discoloured overpaint from earlier conservation campaigns. At this stage the extent of damage to the painting was revealed, including water damage, over-cleaning, and abrasion. 

Once the painting was varnish-free, structural concerns were addressed. The waxy lining was detaching and needed to be removed. Since much of it was already falling off, much of this process was fairly easy. Removing the residual wax was trickier, but after several tests it was carefully melted away on a large, heated table.

Beneath the vast quantities of wax was glue from another lining. This also needed to be removed. In order to soften the old 19th-century glue, we applied a water-based gel to the back of the canvas, and left it for several minutes. Then the scraping commenced. With a team of four conservators, we slowly made our way through the gluey mess for two weeks. While removing wax and scraping glue might not be everyone’s idea of fun, the process was actually quite satisfying, particularly because beneath the glue were original artist's brush marks on the back of the canvas!

The odd protrusions and dents I had initially noticed correlated precisely to these brush marks. This was where Thomas Couture tested his paints and tint combinations. Additionally, there was a canvas stamp from the supply shop where Couture would have ordered his materials in Paris. Both are historical evidence of the artist’s process and his materials, and are well worth taking the extra effort to preserve.

Further structural treatments were also necessary. These included: 1) applying varnish to the back of the canvas to strengthen it; 2) strip lining, a process whereby canvas is attached to the edges of the painting, allowing it to be stretched; and 3) modification of the “stretcher” (the wooden support frame). In order to provide support for the painting, while allowing the paint on the back of the canvas to remain accessible, we created removable panels. This modification involved a lot of gluing, stapling, hammering, measuring, re-measuring, cutting, and taping. Finally, however, we made a perfect bed for the painting: a firm, even surface with a fluffy polyester coating to prevent the canvas from flapping, and which could also be removed, when necessary, to look at the back of the canvas.

The final stage of the restoration involved masking the damaged areas. I applied a stable synthetic resin mixed with stable dry pigments to the surface of the painting, to reintegrate areas of damage. This required several months of work, during which I carefully dotted appropriate colours onto the canvas, mimicking the surrounding paint. Certain colours were easily achieved using Couture's method and choice of pigments, such as yellow ochre, sienna and umber. However, some pigments used in 19th-century French painting are not safe for use today, such as vermilion and lead white. To reintegrate areas containing these colours, I applied modern synthetic alternatives. For example, in the vermilion areas, I tested several colour combinations and created a matching colour using a mixture of cadmium red, cadmium orange and ivory black. This retouching can be safely removed by conservators in the future, and does not cause damage to the painting. Once the retouching was complete, the painting was sprayed with a final protective varnish.

Supper at the Maison d’Or is now in stable condition, suitable for display. After 158 years, the masterpiece once again resembles its 19th-century self, minus a few age cracks.

Thomas Couture, Supper at the Maison d’Or also known as Each Party has its Ending, 1855, oil on canvas, 180.0 x 228.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Presented by Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Rogers, VAG 31.101, Photo © NGC

Supper at the Maison d’Or is on view at the NGC in Gallery C212.

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