“Tobias and Sarah”, Jan Steen

Abraham Bredius has never seen the painting ‘The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah’ by Jan Steen as it is in the museum now. He was the owner of the right half; the left half was in the Centraal Muaeum in Utrecht. In 1996 the restorers of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, Wietse van den Noort and Jan Venema, cleaned the paintings, restored them and put them together again.


In the sixties the reconstruction took place. During a restoration two wingtips and a dagger sheath had appeared, which proved that originally these two paintings were one. And the green-clad figure turned out to be the angel Rafael, who uses an incense offering to dispel the evil spirit. In 1993 The Hague art historian Albert Blankert proposes to restore and unify the two paintings. The plan is to be carried out in the restoration workshop of the Haags Gemeentemuseum.


Both paintings had yellowed, but one was worse than the other. So the old varnish had to be removed to get the colours left and right to harmonize. Especially the right part appeared to have been repainted brown-green in many places, among others the edge of the table, possibly meant as corrections of the loose and lively style of Jan Steen.


Especially in the grey smoke the paint was badly worn, i.e. many black spots have come up from the underground. In the macro-picture we can see how the worn pattern shows up under the thick brown layer of varnish.


Jan Steen typically colours the background roughly first, after which he paints the details in the foreground. If he corrects shapes, such as the edge of the table in this picture, which was changed from right to oblique, that will show eventually.


This is a macro-picture of that table edge, which shows more clearly how a smooth layer of brown paint was put over it by somebody who thought Steen’s manner of painting was too sloppy. From the grain pattern we can see very well that dye powders and pigments used to be a lot coarser than they are now.


Before a painting is cleaned, it is always very difficult to predict what the condition will be of the paint under the old varnish. In this upper-left part of the Tobias and Sarah half the picture would seem to be reasonably well preserved, apart from the crackle pattern, which is quite common in old paintings.


After the cleaning the left side appears to be badly damaged, lacunae have shown up and scorch marks, possibly the result of a fire. The light and dark yellow patches are old holes that were filled up and repainted by restorers at various moments in the past.


Also old damaged parts in the red chair became visible again. Obviously the painting has been cut right through the picture. Half chairs are very unusual in 17th century paintings and Steen, who painted this chair very often in his interior pictures, always depicts it in full.


After removing the old varnish the two separate canvases had to be reunited into one object. That was done by means of relining, a new piece of canvas being attached to the back of the old one. The two paintings had each been relined before, so they had to be detached first before being united on the new canvas. In this picture you see both parts with the inserts for the missing corner and the strip in the middle under some plastic foil on the lining table, where a slight vacuum will be pulled.


Through the shining plastic foil the relief on the surface of the paintings can be seen very well. Once the old and the new canvases have been pressed together by the vacuum, the lining table can be heated, so that the sticking paste, a mix of wax and resin, melts and provides lasting fixation after cooling down.


The two parts have now been attached to the new canvas and have become one whole again. Now every single unevenness between the old and the new surface has to be eliminated, for which the side of the painting is strongly lit, in so-called floodlight.


For the canvas to function as a painting it has to be put on a stretcher, a new one as well of course, as the size of the canvas has changed completely. The size of the stretcher had to be determined minutely so that the complete picture actually fitted the front of the stretcher, fully visible and not covered by the groove of the frame.


The edges also had to be folded very precisely, so that the picture would be exactly straight on the canvas and in the frame. Accurate to a millimetre the unpainted edges are evenly spread on all sides.


Once the stiff canvas has been folded properly onto the new stretcher, it is attached with sharp carpet-tacks. To make sure that during the stretching everything stays straight, the edges are watched carefully on all sides.


Relining and stretching are finished. Now the painting can be varnished, after which the retouching will start. In this stage photos are very important, so that at any moment in the future we can determine what was painted by Jan Steen and which details and larger parts were added later on.


Tobias’ legs during retouching. Dot by dot the old worn layer of paint is retouched with adapted new paint. It is easy to see that the untreated leg does not do justice to the original structure, relief and legibility, whereas the right leg looks as it was intended to be.


The pillow on the left of the pillar has been retouched, the one on the right has not. The relief and materiality are gradually returning. Retouching takes up a great deal of time and it is the least spectacular episode of a restoration, but it will pay off in the end.


Here is another example: the wing on the right of the seam has been retouched, the left part has not. The damage on the left was caused as the wingtip had been repainted for a long time and was uncovered not until the fifties.


In a couple of months the ruin is turned into a legible and enjoyable painting again. The least problematic retouches are carried out first, after which the restored parts help us coping with the more difficult parts.


Before filling in the large missing parts the involved and interested parties and specialists have consulted extensively. The first design and colour proposals were put down on strips of paper. In this picture possible alternatives are discussed with prof. van de Wetering, restoration-specialist, and Ariëlle Veerman, restorer of the Rijksdienst.


The missing wingtip also had to be completed. Without really intending to imitate Jan Steen a convincing complementary wing had to be added. The outspread wing of a large stuffed seagull from the Museon could be used as an example.


One should realise that despite all these efforts we are dealing with the remaining centre part of a larger painting, which might have measured an extra ten to twelve inches, especially on the left and at the top. The kneeling couple might have been the centre of the composition. The restored parts are all that is left of a large monumental composition, the exact image of which leaves a lot to our imagination.

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