When Cleanliness Is Next to Ungodliness: Furor Erupts Over Louvre's Scrubbing of Holy Leonardo Painting

When Cleanliness Is Next to Ungodliness: Furor Erupts Over Louvre's Scrubbing of Holy Leonardo Painting
Detail of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne," 1510
(Courtesy Wikipaintings)

Can an aging work of art ever be too clean? After a thorough restoration carried out at the LouvreLeonardo da Vinci's "The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne" looks positively glowing, with luminous fabrics and bright skin highlights (particularly on those shiny cheekbones). But some specialists are arguing that the painting is now too bright — brighter than the Renaissance man ever intended it to be — and two conservation experts on the museum's international advisory committee have resigned, reportedly in protest over the extreme cleaning.

Ségolène Bergeon Langle, a former Louvre conservator, confirmed her resignation to the Guardian and said that she would disclose her reasons for leaving in a meeting with Louvre director Henri Loyrette. Jean-Pierre Cuzin, previously head of paintings at the Louvre, also confirmed his resignation to the paper, but declined to comment on his motivation. A senior Louvre source who remains anonymous told the Guardian that Bergeon Langle and Cuzin considered the cleaning excessive and thought that it had been carried out without sufficient tests.

 

The 20-member Louvre international advisory committee includes the National Gallery's Larry Keith and Luke Syson, who, according to the anonymous Louvre source, pressed hard for the painting's restoration. "There are people who are very much for bright hues and strong cleaning," the source told the Guardian. "Those people are in charge." Keith and Syson have previously come under fire by the preservation organization Artwatch UK for their cleaning and retouching of the National Gallery's "Virgin of the Rocks," which appears in the museum's current blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci show.

Vincent Pomarède, head of paintings at the Louvre, stood behind the cleaning, telling the Guardian that "rarely has a restoration been as well prepared, discussed, and effected, and never will it have benefited from such effective techniques." However, the committee remains divided, with some approving of the cleaning and others maintaining that it was excessive. Experts are to examine the painting again today to help determine just how much cleaning is too much. 

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