Birth of Adonis – Italian – c. 1660

Historic Information

“This painting has been in our family for generations; we think it was brought from Europe when our grandparents immigrated to the United States; we were told that it was painted by a famous artist; and its’ very important”.………….In many instances this is all a client knows about a piece of art that has been passed down in their family.    Conservators are often asked to identify or appraise artwork.    We are trained to help in this process by gathering intrinsic or scientific information about the materials used, inscriptions found, or how your artifact was put together.    We work closely with other people who can determine the age, attribution and value of your artwork.   If you require these services we can easily refer you to the appropriately skilled professional.    Please refer to our “Frequently Asked Questions” section for additional information.

This painting was thought to have been painted by notable French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who painted in the Classical Style.   After conferring with a knowledgeable Poussin scholar it was determined that this painting was most likely not painted by Poussin, was more Baroque in style, was probably painted in Italy, and was painted by a follower of Poussin near the end  or after his life (c. 1660 – 70).    The scholar interpreted the scene as the “Birth of Adonis” with the hole in the tree representing a birth canal.    Adonis’s mother, Myrrha, was changed into a tree (she had illicitly made love to her father, Cinyras) whereby she gave birth to Adonis.     Diana (Artemis), with the crescent moon in her hair serving as goddess of childbirth, flies above the four women who attend to the newly born Adonis.  The seated woman holding Adonis is almost certainly Lucina, the Roman goddess of childbirth.   The other four women on the left are naiads, or wood nymphs.

Artifact's Condition Prior to Treatment

The painting was executed using oil paints applied over a white preparatory ground layer on a coarsely woven linen canvas.   It measured 31 ½”h x 39”w.  The paint and ground layers were actively delaminating from the canvas support.    There was noticeable paint loss associated with this flaking paint.    At least 100 years ago the painting was glue lined to fine weave linen canvas.  It appeared that some of the paint layers may have been somewhat abraded from a past cleaning.  It was also noted that the standing figure on the viewer’s left was crudely painted when compared to the execution of the other figures.   This figure may have been added at a later period or might have been overpainted by a restorer or artist.  Extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity over a long period of time had caused the animal skin glue to breakdown and fail.   Since the glue also penetrated the paint layer during this lining process, the bond holding the paint to the canvas had failed too.    The lined painting was stretched on a pine stretcher that replaced the original, probably when it was lined.   There were at least two extremely discolored and darkened varnish coatings on the painting.   Under ultra violet illumination the coatings fluoresced a characteristic yellow/green color that is indicative of a natural resin varnish.   The original tacking edges of the painting were removed during the previous restoration process.   The back of the lining canvas was saturated with oils and is very dark and brittle.

The gold-leafed frame was not original to the painting and appears to be c. 1850-90.   It was substantial in size, well-constructed, and made of pine.    The surface had been overpainted with metallic paints, and much of the cast ornamentation was loose or missing.  There was evidence of water damage to the rear on the bottom back edge of the frame.  There were no visible inscriptions on the painting, canvas reverse, stretcher or frame.

Treatment of the Artifact

The conservation treatment was documented with written reports and was photographed before, during and after treatment.   Extreme care was taken to unframe the painting face up because of the severely   compromised condition of the paint layer.     The painting was then cut off of its stretcher through the lining canvas (the original tacking edges no longer exited).  Flaking paint was consolidated locally by slowly relaxing each paint curl by melting in wax resin adhesive with a small tacking iron.   After the entire surface was treated in this manner the silicon release Mylar was peeled away and excess wax resin was dissolved with a mild organic solvent.   This process was repeated several times until all of the paint was relaxed back into plain and firmly attached to the canvas support.    Discolored layers of varnish could now be taken off safely.   Varnish coatings were removed using fairly strong organic solvents and dirt layers, which were embedded into the paint, were removed with a strong aqueous detergent.   During cleaning it was found that approximately 70% of the sky, 50% of the dark colored foreground and the entire standing figure on the viewer’s left was overpainted (with the exception of the legs and the extended right arm).   It was not possible to remove the overpaint on the standing figure without damaging the remnants of original below.  The entire cleaning process was repeated several times until all of the old varnish and dirt layers were gone.   The painting was given a brush coating of varnish to seal and further consolidate the paint.   A layer of Japanese tissue paper was temporarily attached to the front of the painting with varnish.    This allowed us to turn the painting over and remove the old lining canvas and thick animal skin glue layer without damaging the paint.   Once the majority of the old adhesive was scraped off,  the painting was turned over and the facing tissue was removed with organic solvents.   The painting was infused on the vacuum hot table with wax resin adhesive and then lined onto Belgium linen with a thermoplastic adhesive.   The lined painting was restretched onto a newly crafted poplar expansion bolt stretcher and secured with tacks.   An isolating spray coating of varnish was applied, and losses were filled and then inpainted with conservation grade paints.    As noted previously, the overpaint on the standing figure could not be safely removed so with the owner’s consent, a new figure that was more anatomically correct, then the crude overpaint, was created.    The legs and right arm were original artwork and they were not overpainted.   When complete the painting was given several spray coatings of varnish and several brush coatings to even out the surface level and sheen.

Overpaint was removed from the frame with organic solvents, and loose ornamentation was consolidated with varnish and polyvinyl acetate adhesive.   Missing ornamentation was cast from complete examples on the frame and glued into place.    They were made from gilder’s composition and were attached with animal skin glue.   Filled losses, surface abrasions, and newly cast ornamentation was inpainted with conservation grade paints and mica powders mixed with varnish.   When complete, the frame was given a coating of toned microcrystalline wax and was lightly buffed.   The painting was properly reframed and returned to the owner.

Photographic Documentation