This Painting Survived an Explosion

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.

“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.

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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.

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