There’s usually no forbidden fruit in Getty’s paintings conservation studio. Or snakes. Or trees. Until now.
The highly detailed, nearly life-size paintings—two of the best-known, most captivating works of the 16th-century—are being restored by Ulrich Birkmaier, the Getty Museum’s senior conservator of paintings, who I find tucked away in the corner of the museum’s conservation studio surrounded by tools of the trade.
The paintings are part of the Norton Simon Art Foundation’s collection. In 2021, the Norton Simon Museum partnered with Getty on a nearly three-year conservation project to restore the appearance and structural integrity of the paintings. They had been marred by old restorations, layers of discolored varnish, and physical damage, and Birkmaier and his team have deep expertise in these issues.
Repairing the Structural Support
Cranach painted Adam and Eve around 1530 while serving as court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg (a city today in eastern Germany). As with many 16th-century paintings on wooden panels, Adam and Eve were subjected to a common 19th-century practice called “cradling.” Some 300 years after they left Cranach’s studio, the panels were planed down and backed by a grid of wooden slats mounted to the back of the support.
As curators and conservators from the Norton Simon Museum found in their research, the intent of cradling was to allow natural expansion and contraction of the wood while preserving a flat surface. However, cradling systems often caused more damage than they prevented. Forcing the panels to remain flat while the wood expanded and contracted (due to fluctuations in the environment concentrated stress at regular intervals across the surface) eventually splits the wood, resulting in what conservators call a “washboard” effect.
In the conservation studio, the slanting afternoon light highlights the long cracks rippling through the two intricate, unframed paintings.
“The first issue that needed to be addressed was the structural one,” Birkmaier says. “So the first step was basically to remove those old cradles, secure the panels, realign them, and really stabilize and improve their appearance.”
For this portion of the project, the Getty Museum worked with international experts George Bisacca and José de la Fuente, who specialize in large-scale wooden supports. Birkmaier pulls out a screwdriver, carefully spins Adam’s easel around, and unscrews the protective back cover over the newly-constructed support system.
Once the backing is removed, the original panel becomes visible. Birkmaier points out several slender slices of pale wood filling what were once cracks in the back of the painting. Each slender piece is a custom-cut wedge that matches the density of the wood originally used by Cranach. Refilling the cracks with these wedges reestablishes a consistent strength and overall natural curve to the panel.
One challenge Birkmaier faced was reconstructing large areas of lost paint, including a section of the forehead and distinctive curls of hair in Adam. In a previous restoration, a knot or branch of wood that had compromised the painting was removed and replaced with a new wood segment, which had degraded and needed to be replaced.
Birkmaier is approaching conservation of this section with caution. “We didn’t want to make anything up,” he says. “We didn’t want to invent what Cranach would’ve done because we have no way of knowing. But luckily, we have many, many versions of the painting.”
Cranach created more than 50 scenes of Adam and Eve in various sizes, probably in response to the popularity of the subject with members of the Protestant Wittenberg court. The Adam at the Uffizi Gallery is about the same size and in the same pose as the Adam from the Norton Simon Museum. Birkmaier believes that both Adam paintings were based on the same drawing or model; so he photographed a portion of the Uffizi Adam‘s forehead, hairline, and curls, cut it out in Photoshop, and—a first in his years as a conservator—used a projector to trace the image on the Adam resting in the studio.
“We realized that the curls actually sort of complete the existing half curls next to the paint loss,” Birkmaier says. “You have the curls falling into his forehead again, which is how Cranach would’ve painted it originally.”
Revealing Cranach’s Painting Techniques
Beside Eve sits a table topped with a tidy collection of pigments and a cluster of small brushes for detail work. “You can see it’s a very reduced palette,” Birkmaier says, dipping a brush into pink paint. “When you have modern paintings or even old master paintings, you typically have many, many colors in one painting. Cranach worked with a very austere sort of color palette.”
Birkmaier has a meticulous process of inpainting, filling losses, and retouching ahead of him. “These paintings are so carefully constructed,” he says. “They’re so smooth. So when you inpaint or when you do your retouching, filling in these losses of paint, it’s very important to exactly match the surface, the opacity, the color, because it’s almost like painting on porcelain.”
Discovering a Surprising Detail
As with many restoration efforts, the conservation of Adam and Eve not only protects the artworks and prevents future damage to them, it also reveals more of the artist’s process.
Birkmaier gestures to Adam’s eyes, pointing out the little spot of light in each pupil. He notes that this microscopic detail, less than a millimeter in size, is meant to be a reflection of a windowpane in the artist’s studio. Rather than a realistic effect, though, this detail was a conventional shorthand used by painters at this time to signal a reflection in the curved surface of the eye.
Knowing When to Stop
“You don’t want to go too far with a conservation treatment, because it’s going to start to look like an artifice,” Birkmaier says. “There’s a natural aging process these paintings are subjected to. And the pigments change. They change over the decades and centuries, just like we do. So you have to let them age gently. There’s a moment where you have to stop, because you want the visitor to enjoy the paintings and look at them as objects that are 400 or 500 years old.”
Cranach’s Adam and Eve will be on view at the Getty Museum from January 23 through April 21, 2024, before returning to the Norton Simon Museum.