40 years of the restoration of Las Meninas

Tomorrow, May 14, it will be forty years since John Brealey, then Head of the Restoration Department at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, began the process of cleaning Las Meninas; His name, which sparked some controversy in 1984 as it was a foreign professional, had been proposed by the Royal Board of Trustees of the Prado Museum a few months earlier, when Alfonso Pérez Sánchez and Javier Solana, then, respectively, director of the art gallery and minister of Culture, agreed that the best possible international expert would be in charge of this work.

Brealey carried out his work, for which he received no remuneration (No one can be paid if they go to paradisehe said), in room 85 of the Museum, where today the Summer of Goya and then a management area was located. It took less than a month to complete the cleaning (exactly 23 days) and, subsequently, Rocío Dávila, Maite Dávila and Clara Quintanilla, from the center’s team of restorers, proceeded to reintegrate the color, while Enrique Quintana carried out the report details of those actions. A facelift that returned light and depth to the composition, and its viewers, and that would be completely completed some time later: in September, when Brealey returned to Madrid to apply a final spray varnish, and in February 1986. In this last year, what conservation experts call “stunned” occurred: the varnish had oxidized and had partially lost its transparency due to the humidity and temperature conditions; At the British’s instructions, it was removed superficially and the fabric was rubbed with a soft cloth, returning the work to its previous state.

Although Brealey worked for the love of Velázquez, the operation did involve expenses: three million pesetas that were donated by Hilly Mendelssohn as a thank you to Spain for its help in abandoning Germany in World War II (her origin was Sephardic Jewish); Later, in addition, and with the financial collaboration of Plácido Arango, Brealey would guide the restorers of the Prado for a few years, until reasons prevented him from doing so.

Velazquez. Las Meninas, 1656 (before restoration). National Prado Museum

Commemorating their 40th anniversary Las Meninas As we see them today, the Prado has brought together some of the protagonists of the intervention and the circumstances that surrounded it (Brealey, who was then already one of the most influential conservators and restorers of the 20th century, both in Europe and in America , died in 2002 at the age of 77).

Javier Portús, head of the Department of Spanish Painting (until 1700) of the gallery, recalled the unprecedented media impact it garnered, including suspicions. It would have been this way even if for twenty years he had not hung next to the canvas a marble plaque proclaiming that Las Meninas It was a culminating work of universal painting; Velázquez himself was probably aware that this would be one of the paintings for which he would be remembered: it is his largest composition and the most complex in terms of its spatial arrangement and lighting. Plus, it breaks the call barrier genre theory (being a portrait, it has compositional strategies typical of history painting) and, being daring but truthful, we could classify it as “useless” or “unnecessary” in that it did not meet the needs to which the discipline traditionally responded in the 17th century: it was not a representative, devotional, narrative, or expressive piece… The writer Antonio Palomino defined it as a “new whim”, alluding to its ambiguous nature and its novel character.

From its very creation it was already considered a genius, and its possibilities of influencing other pieces, also masterpieces, by Spanish and foreign authors would soon be demonstrated; Furthermore, different exhibition treatments have sought to make it unique. Portús has pointed out that the dialogue with Las Meninas It began with Martínez del Mazo in his family portrait (The painter’s family, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) and became more pronounced from the end of the 18th century; At this moment we must emphasize the weight of Velázquez in Goya (The family of the Infante Don Luis, The family of Charles IV).

Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. The painter’s family1665. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Francisco de Goya. Family of Charles IV, 1800. Museo Nacional del Prado
Francisco de Goya. Family of Charles IV1800. National Prado Museum

The 19th century would be the time of the great discovery of ancient Spanish painting and Sevillian painting in particular, due to the dissemination of works by artists from our country throughout Europe, the growing opening of museums and the fact that some of the artistic and literary movements Fundamentals of this stage raised the flag of naturalism with which these authors and especially Velázquez were identified. Many creators drew from Las Meninas Some of his characters were inspired by them or manipulated their composition in a more or less literal way, and not a few traveled to the Prado to see the piece: Courbet, Manet, Monet and other great French, Nordic or American names.

In that 19th century, the painting was located in two locations in the Prado: in the first decades, in the rooms dedicated to the Spanish school at the northern end of the Museum; later, in its basilica room. Velázquez’s peak of fame would come on the third centenary of his birth, in 1899; At that time at the end of the century, the assembly of the pieces left aside the emphasis on masterpieces to attend to the notion of master painter and critical studies were carried out to distinguish the originals from the compositions that could have left the workshops. Furthermore, the paintings were no longer arranged in height, as was usual until then, to favor their individualized contemplation, a novelty at the time. In short, the organization of the Prado collections tended to follow a pedagogical, historical-artistic criterion, as opposed to the previous purely chronological one.

At that time, those who visited the Prado contemplated Las Meninas in a very different way than today: chairs were available, a mirror allowed one to look at them without a frame and almost get close to them, and a window provided natural light to the composition from the same side where Velázquez conceived his sources of luminosity. All these conditions came to modify the readings made of the image; The testimonies also tell us about the use of rhetoric in almost religious terms when referring to this room. Generoso Añés wrote to the director of ABC, in a letter in which he lamented the transfer of the painting to another general location for Velázquez, who until then entered its location with hat in hand, spoke in a low voice and walked almost on tiptoe. And that sometimes he would come to tears. These were common comments until its location was modified to improve its light and temperature conditions.

Internal transfers on the sidelines, too Las Meninas They traveled outside the Prado, due to the : they passed through Valencia, Catalonia and Geneva. Meanwhile, its mythical status and references to its symbolic value grew: Alberti stated, after that march in the thirties, that he would not want to return to the Museum (he did); Richard Serra confessed that, after contemplating them, he decided not to paint again and dedicate himself to sculpture; and Jorge Semprún said that he could tell the story of his life wandering through this composition. These are just some mystifications around the image; there is more.

Some time later, in The words and the things, Foucault would study the work as a representation machine, rather than as an impressionist artifact, and Picasso, in 1957 and according to Jaume Sabartés, confined himself to making fifty canvases inspired by it; in the largest format, exalting Velázquez, replacing the mastiff with that of his own dog and flooding the right side with light. Sabartés, and perhaps that artist as well, was certainly not among the supporters of the old montage: he affirms that the mirror managed to turn the painting into a puppet theater, a kaleidoscopic experiment. In one of the last Picasso images around Las MeninasIsabel de Velasco seems to say goodbye, in fact, in a stage attitude.

Pablo Picasso. Las Meninas, 1957. Picasso Museum
Pablo Picasso. Las Meninas1957. Picasso Museum

Brealey’s landing in Madrid (the controversy over his appointment would end in hugs in the street), in addition to fostering a warm future relationship between the Metropolitan and the Prado, promoted the modernization of the restoration work in our Museum, whose professionals are today in demand for these tasks by other European centres. When synthetic varnishes were the most common, he applied to Las Meninas one made by him with natural materials: mastic resin; Restoration work articulated in windows or boxes was also common then, a method that was beginning to abandon the Prado, a decision that the English expert supported.

The restorers at the Museum today have emphasized the excellent state of conservation of Las Meninas, especially taking into account its format: it is partly due to the fact that it has been the subject of few restorations (yes, several varnishings) and to the good workmanship in those carried out. It is known that the work was repainted in 1895, by Martínez Cubells; In 1899 a new varnish was applied; In 1910 it had been cracked and was reapplied and it is possible that the same thing happened in 1939, after the war. Given the few cleanings carried out until then, these varnishes became thicker and yellower, hence the need to clean them.

In everyone’s eyes the restoration was a success – which we can still enjoy – and Brealey received, in the same year 84 and without waiting any longer, the Gold Medal for Merit in Fine Arts. Secondarily, as Solana recalled today, there was a lot at stake: The president told me: a government can fall for various reasons, but if the restoration of Las Meninas goes wrong, they send us home.

From left to right, Clara Quintanilla, Enrique Quintana, Rocío Dávila and Maite Dávila, responsible for the restoration of Las Meninas, after the cleaning carried out by John Brealey
From left to right, Clara Quintanilla, Enrique Quintana, Rocío Dávila and Maite Dávila, responsible for the restoration of Las Meninas after cleaning by John Brealey
Las Meninas Room in 1985
Room Las Meninas in 1985. National Prado Museum
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