Walters' 'King Jugurtha' gets the royal treatment Masterpiece Makeover

March 26, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

small group of people at the Walters Art Gallery have embarked on a long and cautious journey. They are painstakingly making their way across the cracked and dulled surfaces of "King Jugurtha Brought Before Sulla," the magnificent historical painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo that hung over the gallery's marble staircase for years.

Last week, art conservator Catherine Rogers inched her way up a ridge of buckled paint that formed a piece of sky and succeeded in smoothing the heavens. Next week she will "mend" the cloak and upper body of a Roman soldier with the help of a new technique that allows brittle, 18th-century paint to relax onto the canvas without cracking.

Ms. Rogers proceeds with cotton swabs, a scalpel, a microscope and an infrared camera. She is part of a four-person conservation team that is cleaning the painting, reattaching loose paint, thinning discolored varnish and removing the effects of past restorations.

This kind of work usually takes place in the private areas of a museum, but visitors to the Walters' third floor gallery can watch the painting being restored to beauty through a window.

Over the centuries, "King Jugurtha" has weathered its share of troubles: Previous restorers have "improved" facial features and "enhanced" colors. It has been transferred from one canvas to another by a severe stripping procedure. Legend claims it fell off a boat in the New York harbor and floated ashore just before entering the Walters collection in 1902.

Then last year, it fell victim to a fluke roof leak caused by the March blizzard.

But after the Walters conservators finish, the monumental work will be closer than ever to the painting Tiepolo created for a

palazzo in Venice.

"What people were seeing for years and years when they saw this Tiepolo was the restoration on top of it," says Eric Gordon, senior conservator of paintings at the Walters. "It was incredible to find this real painting underneath that was so completely different from what everyone was seeing. The color, the brushwork, the design, the composition: It's strong all over. We've uncovered a masterpiece. Do you know how rare it is to find a masterpiece hiding in your collection?"

The masterpiece is being restored by Ms. Rogers, who is joined two days a week by conservator Peter Nelsen; and Mr. Gordon and Karen French, assistant paintings conservator.

A two-year project

The painting is so large -- roughly 9 feet by 16 feet -- that it didn't fit through the doors of the museum's conservation lab. So the Walters transformed its medieval tapestry gallery into a temporary conservation studio. The project, which began last fall, is estimated to take two years. In order for the conservators to reach problem areas more easily, the painting is currently placed upside-down.

"King Jugurtha Brought Before Sulla" depicts an obscure episode from Roman history in which the conquering Sulla spares the life of the Numidian king. Because Sulla was known as a scoundrel, this scene was perceived as an allegory about changing behavior and fortune.

Monumental historical paintings, especially ones about the Greco-Roman period, were much in demand during the 18th century, according to Dr. Joneath Spicer, the museum's curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. She says they dealt with ethics on a scale that not only spoke to the magnificence of the virtues but also of the palatial homes in which the paintings were displayed.

At the time Tiepolo painted "King Jugurtha," he was in his 20s and en route to the top of his profession. "In a way, these monumental paintings are performance art," says Dr. Spicer. "Artists placed a big premium on being able to paint quickly and with a virtuosity that could turn their small drawings into bravura performances."

"Tiepolo painted very boldly," says Ms. Rogers. "His brush strokes are quick and direct. For the most part, he does not have a lot of layering. Sometimes artists overwork an area, and the work becomes muddy, but Tiepolo didn't have that problem.

"Other artists of his time used to say that while they were still trying to mix their palettes and figure out the colors, Tiepolo had already finished his painting. He was known for being very quick. Now you can see it."

For most of its life at the Walters, "King Jugurtha" was considered something of a wallflower. It was thought such an unremarkable example of Tiepolo's work, in fact, that some scholars attributed the work to his assistants.

A test of patience

Re-animating it requires patience, dedication -- and a lot of scientific knowledge.

In the past, conservators learned their trade primarily through apprenticeships. Today's professionals must master studio art, art history, chemistry and several years of graduate school at art conservation training centers such as New York University and Winterthur, in Delaware.

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