In 1976, I lived in New York City and studied painting and drawing from a modern old master at the Art Student League of New York. Our teacher encouraged us to visit the museums and galleries and put our noses on the excellent examples of old masters especially of Dutch, Italian, and Flemish origins. We noticed a favorite Rembrandt at the Met, "The Noble Slav," was missing and reported to be removed for its "cleaning". Cleaning great works of art with care, knowledge and 'less-is-more' can be beneficial and rarely necessary for these precious jewels. If an important painting is left alone and carefully kept under glass, it can continue to last forever with all its pure and rich colors and for our future generations to enjoy.
With the lead of our instructor and mentor, Frank Mason, and the support of our institution, the Art Students League, we congregated to paint poignant posters and signs such as - "Who Hacked Hals?, Restoration means Mutilation!, and Rembrandt Didn't Die, He Was Cleaned Away!" As young, dedicated and focused art students, we didn't hold back our sentiments on injustice! The purpose of the protest was solid, to get the attention of the Metropolitan and museum directors about the method of cleaning and potential results of losing the delicate glazing that these masters placed on top of their underpainting to create atmosphere, color, unity and an overall feeling to the artist's concept. If you see an Old Master painting that has lost shadow and major color on areas such as on faces and robes, you will know what we are referring to. Once this over cleaning is done, the artist's original intention and beauty can never be gotten back!
As we walked back and forth along the front of the museum, we did get great press in the New York Times and Post with pictures and article on the core of the cause. Frank Mason and Paul Resika were invited to meet with the new chief conservator, John Brealey of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,and our case for the old masters' cleaning was received. They were happy to report that the shadows are and would be left on the paintings!
History will show the lineage of famous artists who have taken the lead to protect our heritage of paintings and a beauty of application that has been almost lost to the current arena of art. I say almost, because that is a lineage that was formed and held on to through out the centuries and fads of current art. One example was Degas marching with a group on Louvre in the 19th Century in order to save the masters! In a free society we are able to use our voices and knowledge to continue important dialogue and a spotlight to a system veering off it's course.