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Danae - The Fate of Rembrandt's Masterpiece
14 October 1997 - November 1998

This exhibition covered the history and restoration of one of the most celebrated works by the foremost 17th-century Dutch painter, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669).

The painting was created in 1636 and reworked by the author ten years later. The myth of Danae had been popular from Antiquity and was taken up by such prominent artists as the Italian masters Correggio and Titian and the Netherlandish painter Jan Gossaert. Rembrandt's interpretation of the myth, however-distinguished by its depth and originality and incorporating a depiction of the female nude, which was exceedingly bold for 17th-century Dutch painting-is perhaps the most wonderful and striking in the history of art.

The Danae was acquired in France by Catherine II in 1772 for the Hermitage as part of the Baron Crozat collection, and was considered one of the consummate masterpieces in the Hermitage collection.

But on June 15 ,1985, Rembrandt's Danae was feared lost forever. That morning at 11:45 a.m., a man slashed the canvas twice with a knife and threw acid over it. Later, the perpetrator, a Lithuanian national, was judged by the court to be insane.

Immediately after that tragic incident the complex process of conservation and restoration began. The damaged canvas was taken out of its frame and carried to a restoration studio. The surface of the canvas was doused with water to neutralise the acid. By evening, when the biting power of the acid had been contained and the physical condition of the surface had been stabilised, it was discovered that over 70 per cent of the paint surface remained undamaged.

The Ministry of Culture established a special Commission to direct the work. It included art historians, historians, artists, conservators and members of the Museum administration.

Hermitage artists and restorers E. Gherasimov, A. Rakhman and G. Shirokov, were charged with the restoration work.

The scientific and methodological approach was developed by the State Commission Secretary, T. Aleshina.

Conservation of the picture, consisting of fixing the paint layers and the ground, removing two lining canvases, relining on a new canvas and a deep regeneration of the varnish, was completed by the end of 1985. Over the course of the next few years, a great deal of work was done: removing incrustations, laying a new ground of chalk and pigment to create the effect of the author's original light-grey ground in the damaged areas.

In June 1987, after the State Commission approved the work done, the final stage of restoration began. This process was based on a traditional method: the damaged surface was varnished and a reversable restoration was executed, with the damaged areas retouched in order to create the impression of an aesthetically complete picture.

Displayed in the Hermitage, along with the restored Danae, were numerous photographs illustrating various stages of the restoration process. Watercolours depicting 19th-century Hermitage interiors also provided interesting information about the history of the celebrated painting within the Hermitage.

There were also comparative works on the same subject, by Titian (from the Hermitage collection) and J. Blanchard (from the former Imperial palace of Tsarskoe Selo), as well as a Greek vase decorated with the same scene. Drawings and prints from the Hermitage collection illustrated the influence of Rembrandt's work on his contemporaries and followers.

An important part of the exhibition was a multimedia programme created by the Museum, bringing to life all aspects of the restoration and how the artist developed and changed the composition. There was information about Rembrandt's life and the iconography of the painting and a special section devoted to the scientific research and restoration of the painting. A special "Zoom" facility enabled viewers to examine fragments of the painting before and after the damage, in the course of restoration and after its completion


 

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