The Conservation of Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Mrs Rivoir
To the collections of the Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation belongs Ilya Repin’s oil painting The Portrait of Mrs Rivoir from 1918. The work was conserved in order to be lent to the broad exhibition of Repin’s works at the Trechakov Gallery in Moscow. The portrait will be hung in September 2019 at the exhibition Classic Works of Fine Art at the Manor shown at the Serlachius Museum Gösta.
Ilya Repin (1844–1930) was a Ukraine-born painter who studied and worked during most of his life in Russia. At a more mature age, he settled down permanently in Finland, in the Kuokkala village of Terijoki. Repin’s oil painting The Portrait of Mrs Rivoir (1918) is dated to the period when the artist was living in Finland. The lady wearing a black dress in the painting represents the teacher of French Alisa Rivoir.
The canvas of Mrs Rivoir’s portrait is made of old linoleum, and its front side has a grid-pattern in low-relief and ornamental decorations printed in blue colour. The portrait has been painted in oil colours directly on the linoleum surface. As to its painting technique, it’s an alla prima painting, that is, a painting made in the wet on wet technique, in which you can’t especially discern the finishing phase or the undercoating. Repin has painted in thick and opaque colours with schematically rough brush strokes. Between the colour surfaces there are empty cracks, where you can discern the linoleum canvas.
The portrait has been lent to the Ilya Repin exhibition going on between March and August 2019 at the Trechakov Gallery in Moscow, which is the reason why it was conserved. First, the work was documented by photographing and in written form. Problems revealed in the work were drought cracks, surface grime, a scratch in the varnish, a small paint loss and a slackening of the canvas. In addition, the frame structure was defective.
The most eye-catching element in Mrs Rivoir’s portrait was the extensive drought cracks in the colour area of the black-brown dress. The contrast between the white drought cracks and the dark canvas was visually disturbing the discerning of the subtle colour nuances, trivializing the picture motif. There are several possible factors influencing the emergence of drought cracks, for example the consistency and size of the pigments, the quality of the oil adhesive, the material of the canvas and the painting technique. As to its consistency, oil colour can be for example too thick and greasy, or then a new layer of paint can be spread too soon over a surface that is still humid. Also, a deviation from the basic rule saying you should go from greasier to thinner can cause drought cracks, as the canvas dries and stiffens.
I started the conservation of the portrait by removing the old loose dust material from the reverse side. After that, I tightened the tension of the slackened canvas using wedges and removed the surface dust from the picture side. I didn’t remove or thin the surface varnish, because it hadn’t yet darkened in any remarkable way. The time I disposed of for the work wouldn’t have been enough for the slow varnish removing phase and for applying a new layer of varnish.
After the surface cleaning, I started the process of eliminating the drought cracks by a restoration of the paint layer, because I wanted to improve the aesthetic value of the portrait. I also filled the areas of paint loss with new colour and eliminated an old scratch in the varnish. The restoration of the paint layer in the spots that had suffered drought cracks was a meticulous work that took me months. In accordance with the ethics of conservation, I carried out the restoration of the paint layer in such a way that the new paint would later on be possible to remove without damaging the original painting surface. As the last step in the conservation, I attached the portrait into a new solid exhibition frame, the object of which was to protect the work during the time it was lent to the Trechakov Gallery, and after that, when it would hang in the Manor of the Art Museum Gösta.