Israel Rafalovich
Israel Rafalovich

Rubens’s ‘The Prodigal Son’ revived

The Royal Museum of Fine Art in Antwerp, Belgium, has recently presented a masterpiece of the painter Peter Paul Rubens that was hidden under layers of dirt and coloured varnish but now is a piece of pride of the museum.

It is Rubens’s prized painting The Prodigal Son, painted in 1618. It’s a modest-sized work (107cm x 155cm oil on canvas) that over two years was re-examined, researched and restored.

It is a stunning visual transformation of the painting. It was researched by a team of the museum with Nico van Hout, a Rubens expert and the curator, as well as the chemistry department of the Antwerp University.

Once more one can distinguished between sun, candle and supernatural light, and Rubens’s thin layer of fast, sketchy brushwork is now visible on the surface.

”In order to regain the original sense of depth,” says curator Van Hout, ”the painting required thorough restoration.”

Carefully and gradually, the thick layers of varnish and over-painting were removed. Rubens applied the paint in such thin, transparent layers that the underlying light ground is visible through the brushstrokes in various places.

In its unrestored, almost illegible, condition, The Prodigal Son had been regarded as a carefully executed composition, but as it turns out this impression was false.

In addition to Rubens’s masterly play with the depth of light, there is also a sketchy quality to the painting, executed as it was with sometimes rather ”wild” brushstrokes.

Rubens had carefully planned the composition before he started painting. This can be seen from the fact that a number of reserves were kept in the painting and ” because we see a few compositional changes”, says Van Hout.

The restoration of The Prodigal Son inaugurates an exhibition series titled Rubens Revealed, based on fresh research and technical analysis of individual works by the Antwerp-born master in the Royal Museum of Fine Art collection.

Only a handful of works will be featured in the exhibition, but all of the museum’s 28 Rubens painting are to be examined in a large-scale project that intends to increase knowledge about the works’ material make-up, iconography, provenance and authorship.

The programme is expected to be completed by 2010. It was launched in 2007 with a €140 000 grant from the Getty Foundation and additional funds from other sources.

Among the museum’s huge Rubens works are several that Napoleon’s troops removed from Antwerp’s churches and monasteries in 1794 and carted off to France to be displayed in the Louvre. The works were returned in 1815.

Rubens’s paintings that hung over altars of Antwerp’s vaulted-ceiling churches — each one of them weighs about a tonne — are in desperate need of cleaning, but due to a lack of funding it is doubtful that they will any time soon be returned to their original condition.