The Cleaning and Restoration of Bruegel’s Panel Painting The Suicide of Saul

Speaker: Elke Oberthaler (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)

From October 2018 until January 2019 the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna commemorated the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder with an important exhibition. For the first time ever the artists‘ oeuvre across the media was presented together. The exhibition was the high- but not endpoint of a documentation and research campaign, which started in 2012 and focused on preservation issues and on the extensive technical examination and documentation. The lecture will briefly reflect and update on this project, which also included the in depth treatment of the panel painting The Suicide of Saul, signed and dated with 1562.

The panel painting depicting The Suicide of Saul is by far the smallest Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and one of the master’s most concentrated compositions executed in a distinct miniature technique. The legibility of the painting was highly compromised by a heavily degraded varnish layer and overpaints in the areas next to the joints that connect the original panel with the later additions. These additions where attached in the late eighteenth century on the top and lower edges in order to compensate an old format loss that had reduced the height of the painting. Another question was raised by the appearance of the distant landscape, which seemed to have lost almost all definition. The talk will discuss the research done in preparation of the treatment. The procedures and techniques used to remove varnish layers and overpaints will be presented step by step, together with the decisions and choices made concerning the degree of integrating the old additions.

Elke Oberthaler

Elke Oberthaler graduated from the Conservation Program of the University of Applied Arts Vienna in 1985. She has been a paintings conservator at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna since 1984. From 1990 – 1992 she was A.W. Mellon fellow in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1997 she was appointed chief conservator of the paintings collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Her most recent project was the technical study of the panel paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the KHM, supported by the Getty Panel Paintings Initiative and, as a member of the curatorial team with Sabine Pénot, Manfred Sellink and Ron Spronk, the organization of the monographic exhibition on Pieter Bruegel the Elder held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2018/19.

Elke Oberthaler has been lecturing at both conservation programs in Vienna. She is currently member of the International Commissions in Ghent – for the conservation of the Ghent altarpiece and in Dresden – for the restoration of the Painting Girl Reading a Letter by Johannes Vermeer. Her publications focus on painterly techniques and the history of conservation.

Organised by Professor Aviva Burnstock (The Courtauld) 

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4 Feb 2020

Vernon Square, Penton Rise, Kings Cross, London