Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Discovering a Long Lost Masterwork, and the Road Ahead

Part 1 of Conserving a Canaletto

I was happy to hear from Timothy Standring, the curator of European painting and sculpture, that the Denver Art Museum was awarded the TEFAF grant to treat a long lost Canaletto picture, Venice: the Molo from the Bacino di San Marco. Though eager to look at the picture myself, I was also a little apprehensive to learn of its condition because pictures of this age are often heavily restored or "touched up," which may have been the reason it was overlooked in the first place.

First Look

Typically, older pictures are often harshly cleaned using compounds that can leave a painting discolored and damaged over time, and our Canaletto was no exception. Though it wasn't handled as extensively as I expected, which was a good thing. Canvas paintings of this age also commonly are lined to repair tears in the original canvas. This Canaletto is lined to an auxiliary canvas support which most likely occurred in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Dealers during this period would line older pictures and heavily restore them to conceal the picture’s actual condition. They would cut off the original tacking margins and after lining, cover them with paper tape. This gave the edge a cleaner look, but also gave the impression that the picture was not lined. I closely inspected the painting to determine whether or not it was subjected to this practice.

Heavy Hands

Indeed, the lack of original margins on our Canaletto and the old discolored restorations along all four edges and others in the sky and architecture were telltale signs of that deceptive practice. We will have an exciting albeit long road ahead to bring this painting to a stable place. Our next steps are to break out the big guns and conduct further examination using some modern tools including: a stereomicroscope, ultraviolet-A radiation, and x-radiography. These tools will be necessary to develop a better understanding of the painting’s condition history and help us make informed decisions further along in the conservation process.

This post is one in a multi-part series by Denver Art Museum staff on a long lost painting located in our collections. Find links to more from the series.

Image credit: Giovanni Antonio Canal, called il Canaletto. Venice: The Molo from the Bacino di S. Marco, about 1724. Oil on canvas. Bequest of Charles Edwin M. Stanton, 2009.336.

James Squires was the paintings conservator at the Denver Art Museum.