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In 1984, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) bought the painting Left to Die by the famous artist Frances Anne Hopkins who used her sketches and watercolours as the basis for her large oil paintings. When we first saw it, we remembered that we had seen a photograph of a very similar painting in one of our albums. When we checked, we realized that the two were almost identical. The only visible difference was the horizon line and a few small figures in the distance. The question was -- were these two different paintings or did someone make changes to the original? Thanks to x-ray technology, we proved that it was Hopkins herself who had made changes to the piece a few years after the photo was taken. This was therefore an altered original!
X-rays are often used to examine paintings because they allow us to see what is hidden underneath a surface without having to damage it. These are the same x-rays hospitals use to see if you have a broken bone under your skin. By using different intensities of x-rays, experts can see different layers of paint and therefore know whether or not a canvas was ever painted over!
Why Hopkins decided to paint over the horizon line we will never know. But what we do know (thanks to x-ray technology) is that she did!
Tricks of the Trade
Examine these paintings closely. Can you see any sections that have been painted over?
When LAC first acquired this portrait of Louise Amélie Panet-Berczy it was in pretty bad shape. The old varnish had yellowed, there was grime all over, the frame was damaged and it looked like someone had painted over parts of the image. She needed a make over!
But before any conservation work could be done, we had to do our homework. With a scalpel we removed a very small piece of paint and analyzed it under microscopes. We concluded that the face, flowers and lace on the dress were painted at a different time, using a different kind of paint. We looked at some drawings made by Amélie's husband and found one that was a copy of what the painting should have looked like. It proved that in the original version of the portrait, Amélie had no flowers hiding her chest. By reading books about Amélie's father-in-law and the painter of the portrait, William Berczy, we found some information that told us that the changes had been made by a relative of Amélie. It is thought that the face was painted over because the painting had been damaged and that flowers and lace were added to hide what was thought to be too much bare skin!
Once we were sure that the changes were not done by the original painter or by Amélie herself, we decided to restore the piece to its original beauty. We carefully used solvents to remove the old yellow varnish and overpainting. We filled in the places where the paint had completely rubbed off and we added a thin layer of new varnish. And voila, Amélie is once again as beautiful as she ever was!