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Rediscovering a Guercino Masterwork Obscured by Years of Grime

Sometimes, a masterwork can be hiding in plain sight.

High Museum staff recently re-discovered Christ and the Samaritan Woman, an Italian Baroque painting by the celebrated artist Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino or “The Squinter.” Guercino was active in Rome and Bologna from about 1613–1666. Although the painting has been in the High’s European art collection since 1980, it has been mostly kept in storage due to less-than-ideal condition. With support from the Mellon Graduate Fellowship in Object Center Research, Emory University PhD student Kimberly Schrimsher conducted extensive research into the painting and Guercino’s studio practice. Thanks to Schrimsher’s research, the museum is able to confidently attribute the painting to Guercino himself, rather than other artists in his workshop.

The upcoming reinstallation of the High Museum’s permanent collection will present both old visitor favorites and works that visitors may not have seen before. With this in mind, museum staff decided to send Christ and the Samaritan Woman to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts to be conserved. The treatment, performed by Thomas Branchick, resulted in a brighter, cleaner painting that visitors will be able to enjoy for years to come.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman is a half-length painting based on a New Testament passage in the Gospel According to John. The passage describes an interaction between Christ and a woman belonging to a conflicting sect, in which the woman draws water from a well for Jesus, and he in turn offers her “the living water,” or redemption. Our painting is one of at least four canvases Guercino executed of this scene. In our painting, the two figures appear engaged in lively conversation. Christ, his face in three-quarters view, gestures at the woman, who appears in profile, her hands on an elaborate vessel used to draw water from the well. The opening of the well appears at the bottom left of the painting.

Looking at paintings in different kinds of light can give us information about their condition and past interventions. The conservation treatment began with an examination of the painting under ultraviolet light. Newer paint tends to absorb UV light, so if a portions of a painting have been retouched, they will appear darker than the original paint. UV light can also give us information about the type of varnish used, as different varnishes fluoresce different colors. The image in UV light (at left) shows us that past conservators painted small passages on both figures’ faces, on the woman’s chest and arms, and around the edges of the canvas. Look for the dark blue passages to see the newer paint. The retouching was, fortunately for us, not extensive and done by a skilled hand.

Next, Branchick cleaned dirt and grime that had accumulated over the years from the surface of the painting. The cleaning revealed several pentimenti, or details that had been changed by the artist in the process of creating the painting. These small details hidden under the surface reveal themselves as oil paint grows more transparent with time. The ghost of a finger lingering above the woman’s top hand suggests the artist experimented before settling on the final hand position. The existence of pentimenti suggest the work was painted by Guercino himself, rather than workshop assistants, who would have copied a design without making adjustments.

During prior restorations, not one but two linings had been adhered to the Guercino. A lining is a second layer of canvas that is attached to the back of the original with adhesive. A lining can reinforce a deteriorating canvas, lending greater structural integrity to the whole, but the process also has drawbacks. The heat and pressure used to apply the lining can flatten areas of impasto, where thickly applied oil paint stands out from the surface of the painting. In the past, restorers used glue-paste to apply linings. Over time, the glue-paste can expand and contract, causing disturbances to the original paint layer.

Branchick removed the two old linings from the Guercino and attached a new lining with a synthetic adhesive called BEVA 371, using a heat vacuum table that preserves painterly passages of Guercino’s composition. In this photograph, you can see the painting during the lining process. At some point in the past, the original canvas was trimmed all the way down to the edge of the image, so the painting requires a lining in order to be attached to the stretcher.

The next step in the conservation process was inpainting, or filling in areas where paint had flaked off the surface of the canvas, revealing the white ground below. Branchick separated his inpainting from the original paint layer with varnish so that it may later be removed without disturbing Guercino’s work. The inpainting lends the composition a more cohesive look, as the artist originally intended.

At the end of the conservation process, the painting was reattached to its stretcher and inserted into its frame. Having been cleaned, relined, and inpainted, it looks better than ever and will be a wonderful addition to the museum’s galleries starting this fall.

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