A trick of the eye: The treatment of a trompe l’oeil painting by Johannes Leemans.
Johannes Leemans was a Dutch Golden Age artist who specialized in the production of trompe l’oeil paintings- artworks that feature items so realistically rendered that they appear to breach the picture plane. These ‘pleasant and praiseworthy’ deceptions were popular in the early modern period for the sense of wonderment they could inspire, generating admiration for the artists who could accurately portray a great variety of materials.
His paintings often featured curious associated with vanitas and hunting paraphernalia. Trompe l’oeil With A Bird Cage and Hunting Equipment can be considered a classic example of Johannes’s oeuvre. In this instance, he has expertly depicted a range of hunting implements resting on hooks against a plain wall, framed by a simple wooden frame.
- Brusati, C., ‘Honorable Deceptions and Dubious Distinctions: Self-Imagery in Trompe-l’oeil,’ in Illusions: Gijsbrechts, Royal Master of Deception, ed. Olaf Koester (Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, 1999), pp.61-69
Like Studio Redivivus, Johannes Leemans and his brother Anthonie were largely based in the Hague, so it was therefore quite fitting to have the opportunity to treat the painting when it arrived at the Studio from its home in Kasteel Middachten. They incurred both structural and aesthetic issues because of past interventions. The left, right, and bottom edges had been cropped to facilitate its re-sizing when its display niche was reduced in size during a historic refurbishment of the dining room. A broad campaign of overpaint was also carried out during this intervention, which covered much of the top edge. The old layers of varnish and overpaint had discolored, leaving the painting looking flat, under-saturated, and cropped ostensibly ruining the illusion of the trompe l’oeil.
During the initial examination, we observed that the cropped edges had thankfully been retained, they had been folded to the back of the painting where typically they might have been cut off. This gave us the rare opportunity to reinstate Leemans’ illusion.
The conservation treatment was not without its challenges. The paint layers had embrittled with age and mechanical stresses and were found to be particularly vulnerable along the length of the folds. A full consolidation treatment was imperative before structural treatment could be carried out.
Italian lining expert Matteo Rossi was consulted for the lining – a necessary process to the support the fragile fabric of the original canvas, made more vulnerable by the additional folds and tacking holes applied during its re-sizing. The painting was glue-paste lined onto a linen canvas with a thread count comparable to the original canvas. This method of lining was chosen due to its compatibility with the materials used in the painting’s construction as well as for stabilizing the brittle, cupped craquelure from the reverse – and for its future reversibility. Once stretched over a new stretcher, created to accommodate the painting’s new, larger format, the aesthetic issues could be addressed.
This treatment phase saw the removal of the surface dirt, aged varnish layers and discolored overpaint. The latter proved particularly difficult, especially along the top edge where it had been applied to cover the top of the painted frame. The lead containing pigment mixture was highly cross-linked, meaning that it had formed a hard, impenetrable layer. Fortunately, the use of a gelled solvent solution softened this overpaint layer enough to facilitate its careful, mechanical removal, revealing a relatively well-preserved original paint layer below.
The painting could then be varnished to improve saturation, ahead of a mimetic retouching campaign. It was important that the retouching match the original as closely as possible in order to restore the illusory appearance of Leemans’ trompe l’oeil. It was also important to adjust our working method to facilitate the reintegration of the right-most edge, which had aged at a different rate to the rest of the painting because it had been folded back.
Although this treatment could not erase the damage caused by past interventions, the novelty of the composition, the depth and painterly properties of the materials depicted have been successfully restored. We can’t wait to see the impact of its return to its magnificent original setting.