The Virgin of Valvanera painting

Cristóbal de Villalpando, The Virgin of Valvanera, about 1710, Mexico, oil paint on canvas. Gift of the Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 2008.832.

A fixed corner join of the Valvanera strainer, where the ends of the wood members are slotted to fit into each other but glued in place.

A fixed corner join of the Valvanera strainer, where the ends of the wood members are slotted to fit into each other but glued in place.

Two types of adjustable stretcher joins that allow for expansion if the canvas becomes slack

Two types of adjustable stretcher joins that allow for expansion if the canvas becomes slack (photo courtesy of Simon Liu Inc.)

Corner of the painting of The Virgin of Valvenera

The canvas edge glued to the strainer. The water in the glue has caused distortions at the edges of the painted (front) surface. Tacks are more commonly used in other parts of the world to attach a canvas to a wood support.

paint loss at the lower left corner exposes the original red peparatory layer applied by the artist

Paint loss at the lower left corner exposes the original red ground (preparatory) layer applied by the artist. While it appears no previous attempts were made to restore the majority of the text block, someone has applied bright green paint to the upper right corner.

The varnish and restoration materials are removed, revealing the red ground layer and bare canvas at damage sites.

The varnish and restoration materials are removed, revealing the red ground layer and bare canvas at damage sites. These areas will be conservatively repaired so that original paint is not covered.

A restorer’s pink putty (lower red circle) and greenish-white/brown oil overpaint (upper red circle) cover areas of paint loss.

A restorer’s pink putty (lower red circle) and greenish-white/brown oil overpaint (upper red circle) cover areas of paint loss. The overall yellowish cast is caused by aged varnish.

The Virgin of Valvanera: Examination In-Depth

For a painting that is over 300 years old, The Virgin of Valvanera is in remarkably good condition. One would fully expect that a painting of this age has undergone several attempts at restoration (by both skilled and amateur hands). Contrary to what is usually the case, this painting has not incurred major structural damage in the form of tears or losses, has never been lined (i.e. attached to a secondary canvas or solid support material), and has not been severely over-cleaned or extensively repainted.

The painting is constructed of a fairly coarse canvas attached to a wood strainer that features fixed joins (as opposed to a stretcher, which has adjustable joins.) The canvas comprises three pieces that had been sewn together prior to stretching and painting. As was a common practice in the time and region, the outer edges of the canvas had been glued to the front face of the strainer and reinforced with tacks on the perimeter.

There is evidence that the bottom original four inches or so of the canvas had been damaged by water and cut off in a past restoration campaign. One of the strainer’s bottom diagonal corner braces is missing and the other has obviously been cut and moved to accommodate the painting’s newly-shortened vertical dimension. The bottom strainer member and remaining lower batten have been severely weakened by wood-boring insect activity. While the canvas is remarkably intact aside from the missing bottom edge, there are several relatively small tears and holes which had been patched or sewn in various past restoration campaigns. Deformations at the lower left corner are caused by awkward re-gluing of the canvas to the adjusted bottom strainer member.

Water Damage

The face of the painting shows clear evidence of water damage in the form of extensive paint loss along the left and bottom edges, particularly in and around the text in the lower left corner where large areas of the dark red ground layer are left exposed. One can only guess at the circumstances leading to the damage: Was the painting hanging where rainwater from a leaking roof traveled down the supporting wall? Was it stored on the floor in standing water? Was the nature of the water source a weather event (flood) or man-made (burst pipe)? The effects of any of these scenarios would yield the same type of damage. In addition, some areas of the paint surface show signs of localized heat exposure in the form of tiny, burst bubbles. This may suggest that the painting had been too close to candle flame or the like.

Past Attempts at Cleaning & Repair

The paint surface is varnished with a mixture of oil and natural resin, followed by modern applications of at least two types of synthetic resin. Between the coating layers, past restorers and conservators had made various attempts at cleaning and repair. Harsh cleaning has scrubbed the oil/resin varnish off of the textural high-points (leaving darkened pools of varnish in the “valleys” between the brushstrokes and canvas weave) and abraded thinner layers of paint, especially the translucent dark browns and blacks in the tree hollow surrounding the Virgin and Child. Someone had also used a stiff, red putty to cover large areas of paint loss and adjacent original paint along the side and bottom edges. Other losses throughout the painting have been filled with at least two generations of white putty. These fills and other bare losses are retouched with both oil paint and modern pigment/resin mixtures. A major goal of the current conservation treatment is to regain image clarity by removing the “mask” of numerous surface coatings as well as the remnants of darkened varnish and old restoration materials meant to serve as hasty remedies for various condition issues.

Yasuko Ogino is a paintings conservator and owner of Mobile Art Conservation Services LLC. Her participation as project conservator to the treatment of The Virgin of Valvanera is made possible by Bank of America.