Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Secret Life of Drawings

November 23, 2010–February 13, 2011 at the Getty Center


European drawings from the late 1300s to the 1800s, or old master drawings, were handled by artists and later by collectors. With this handling—along with poor storage and display conditions—they show the passage of time, often with distracting damage. This exhibition of thirty drawings illustrates how paper conservators reduce the effects of handling with treatments such as filling losses, reducing stains and mold, and repairing tears. It also reveals the secrets conservators discover, including unknown drawings hidden beneath mounts or watermarks that help determine the date of the paper.

Present-day paper conservation differs from restoration practice of earlier centuries; in general, today's conservators work in subtler, less invasive ways, using methods that are reversible. Their respect for the original intent of the artist allows viewers to focus on the beauty of the design—not the damage.

Watch a video of a Getty conservator at work.

Repairing Tears

Standing Christ (before conservation) / Carpaccio Standing Christ (after conservation) / Carpaccio

This double-sided drawing suffered serious damage. The loss of the four corners and glue residue indicated that it had been torn from a mount. The damage was repaired by tracing the lost areas onto antique paper, which was then shaped with a scalpel and sanded so that it could fit seamlessly within the lost areas. Before the repairs were pasted in, the paper was painted with opaque watercolor. Careful attention had to be paid to match the various colorations caused by stains and glue residue.

Uncovering Secrets

Study of Two Men (during conservation) / Bandinelli Study of Two Men (after conservation) / Bandinelli

Like many old masters, Bandinelli used ink made of ground oak gall nuts mixed with iron shavings and a binder. Unfortunately, this dark, corrosive ink made the paper brittle, particularly where it was densely applied, such as around the knees. By gluing it to a blue paper mount, the sheet was stabilized. Shadows of ink were also visible, suggesting there was a drawing on the back.

Study of the Head of a Bearded Man (during conservation) / Bandinelli Study of the Head of a Bearded Man (after conservation) / Bandinelli

The conservator humidified the drawing and slowly removed the mount, discovering a previously unknown drawing of Hercules on the back. Before this discovery, the sheet was a good example of Bandinelli's numerous figural studies. Now it is known to be preparatory for the artist's most important sculptural commission.

Dating through a Hidden Watermark

Design for a Title Page / Gheyn Watermark in Gheyn's Design for a Title Page

This sheet is a study for a title page of a series of engravings, The Exercise of Calvary, a manual that illustrates military gear and weapons used by soldiers on horseback.

A watermark from the paper mold is visible in the center of the sheet. It depicts a horn suspended from a crown with the initials WR. This same watermark appears in other sheets of paper that are known to have been made in Stuttgart in 1592. This distinctive pattern can be identified as the trademark of a specific paper mill.

Old Repairs

Apollo and the Muses on Mount Parnassus / Poussin Restored area of Poussin's Apollo and the Muses on Mount Parnassus

A drawing by Poussin provides an example of how early restorers took artistic license in their repairs. At some point in the drawing's history, the figure of a muse on the far right was lost—an oval tear marks the place of the loss. The hole was filled with antique paper, and then the 18th-century restorer redrew the figure, mimicking the distinctive style of Poussin's draftsmanship and his use of brown wash to evoke the fall of light. By today's standards, this type of restoration is unethical as it blurs the line between artist and restorer.