Pioneering woman artist’s masterwork is successfully restored at National Gallery

Lavinia Fontana painting undergoes ‘amazing transformation’ in 18-month project

Curator Aoife Brady and conservators Maria Canavan and Letizia Marcattili unveil Lavinia Fontana’s masterpiece The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon after an 18-month conservation project, at the National Gallery of Ireland. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Curator Aoife Brady and conservators Maria Canavan and Letizia Marcattili unveil Lavinia Fontana’s masterpiece The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon after an 18-month conservation project, at the National Gallery of Ireland. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

A masterpiece painted in plague-hit Italy by one of the few women permitted to make a living through art at the time has been painstakingly restored in pandemic-hit Dublin and placed in a position of pre-eminence in the National Gallery of Ireland.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Soloman by Lavinia Fontana is the largest surviving work from one of the most celebrated woman artists in art history and has been part of the National Gallery’s permanent exhibition for more than 150 years.

The painting takes up almost an entire wall of a room on the third floor of the Dublin gallery and its size allowed teams of restorers to work on the project simultaneously while adhering to social distancing rules.

The recently completed 18-month conservation project has brought new life to the work and revealed key elements of the picture which lay hidden for generations under layers of yellowing varnish.

Among the details uncovered during the restoration was an inscription on the base of an ornamental clock held by one of the figures in the composition which dates the painting to 1599, while many of the fraying edges of the work were also substantially repaired and enhanced.

The restoration project, funded by Bank of America, addressed both structural and aesthetic issues, including damage dating back to a fire in Paris, where the painting hung prior to being bought by the National Gallery more than 150 years ago.

Director of the National Gallery Sean Rainbird said no one working on the restoration of a “firm favourite” among gallery visitors had anticipated it would bring about the “amazing transformation” which he said had now “amplified and enhanced” Fontana’s masterwork.

Also in Room 27 in the gallery is a recently acquired piece from Elisabetta Sirani, “a very significant woman artist of the 17th century, who died young of ill health at the rock-star age of 27”, Mr Rainbird said.

Mr Rainbird noted that for hundreds of years women had been shut out of commercial art and he hailed Fontana as a pioneer who blazed a trail as “the first female with a successful commercial career”.

‘Unique history’

Head of conservation at the gallery Simone Mancini said its conservators “had the opportunity to preserve and enhance this painting’s unique history, undertaking a new campaign of treatments and successfully completing a complex and daunting project with exceptional skill and intense dedication”.

Paintings conservator at the gallery Maria Canavan said that as well as restoring it, much of the painting had to be repaired after damage was discovered when it was moved as part of the refurbishment of the gallery in 2015.

“That’s when we noticed that there was some instability running along the bottom of the painting, cracks were forming and paint was lifting,” she said.

Ms Canavan hailed Fontana as a pioneer who, along with a handful of women artists of the time, had left an enduring legacy.

“There [were] so few female artists and the ones that were successful, were ones that happened to be lucky enough to have artists in the family,” she said.

Fontana’s father Prospero was a teacher at the School of Bologna and she is widely regarded as the first woman career artist in Europe to rely on commissions for her income while her husband served as her agent.

“Her father had this idea to train her so she was destined to go into that world,” Ms Canavan said. “But even with all that it’s still remarkable that she was able to create a career and to have her own workshop. There were other women at the time who were painting but more often in convents and she was a true independent.”