As soft afternoon light filtered into Getty’s painting conservation studio, Ulrich Birkmaier flipped through the pages of a photography book.
He found the image he was looking for and stopped, shaking his head.
The photo was of an ornate, cavernous room with a chandelier, curved ceilings, and walls lined with framed paintings. Broken furniture and shattered glass were strewn across the floor. The windows were blown out. The artworks on the walls were pock-marked and torn.
Birkmaier looked up at the large canvas propped on an easel in front of him, then pointed out where it hung in the photo.
“Right now, all you can see is the horrific damage that the painting was subjected to during the explosion,” Birkmaier said. “After the treatment, everything you’ll see [will be] Artemisia Gentileschi.”
A Painting Survives
On August 4, 2020, a double explosion in the port of Beirut devastated the city. More than 200 people were killed and thousands of buildings were damaged, including Sursock Palace, a 19th-century mansion that was once an opulent symbol of Beirut’s cosmopolitanism and prosperity. The roof of the mansion was partially wrecked, and hundreds of pieces of furniture and art were smashed.
One of the many damaged art objects in the building was a priceless painting by Artemisia Gentileschi depicting the Greek myth of Hercules and Omphale.
The scene takes place in the aftermath of Hercules’s inadvertent murder of Iphitus, the young son of the King of Oechalia. As punishment, the oracle at Delphi sentences Hercules to work as a slave for a year and he is forced to do women’s work and wear women’s clothing.
Gentileschi’s painting depicts Hercules holding a spindle of wool while Omphale and her maidens do their spinning.
Assessing the Damage
The painting was heavily damaged by debris and glass from shattered windows that tore through the canvas.
“You see several large losses of paint,” said Birkmaier. “You see rips in the painting. One very large tear is visible through the figure of Hercules.”
Before the painting was brought to Getty for conservation, Birkmaier traveled to Beirut to assess the damage. There, he collected debris from the explosion and worked to parse out paint fragments.
Each fragment contained clues to the artist’s work and process, from the composition of the paint she used to the canvas materials.
The conservation process has just begun. Conservators will continue to assess the damage, work on both the front and back of the canvas, and fill in lost paint. They will also clean the whole surface with organic solvent mixtures to remove the old varnish.
“As you can imagine, it’s a very, very complex sort of treatment,” he said. The conservation work on the painting will take at least a year to complete, and it will go on view at Getty before being returned to Beirut.
“The goal is for people to be able to enjoy the painting again as it was painted,” said Birkmaier.