This month, we take you behind the scenes of our conservation studio, where a new Phoebus Fellow joined the team for three months: Clara Bondia (ES)! Clara tells you more about her projects at The Phoebus Foundation:

“On the one hand, I am studying and working on an 18th-century Latin-American sculpture of The Immaculate Conception catalogued as Quito School, one of the most prestigious names in colonial imagery. The technique is gilded, stewed, and polychromed wood, and the carving and decorations are of the highest quality”.

“After the preliminary and analytical study using X-ray photography, I began stabilising the pictorial layer. The piece had been previously restored, so it was interesting to find out which parts were adhered to or overpainted. In this way, the degree of intervention could be determined. Once the pictorial layer was stable, selective cleaning was carried out, and some of the disturbing overpaint that distorted the view of the piece was removed. When the restoration is finished, it will allow for a better aesthetic reading of the piece.”

“On the other hand, I am also collaborating on an interesting research project on the work Muñecos (Dolls) by the Italian-Argentine artist Líbero Badii, which is an installation of several polychrome wood sculptures with oil. According to the artist, they represent “the figure of the massified contemporary man, and his need for vital cosmic projection, materialised through the strings that unite all the figures”. I enjoy working with contemporary art because of the great challenge it presents in confronting new techniques and new materials.”

“During my stay at The Phoebus Foundation, I will also be able to collaborate in the revision of some other works in the Latin American collection of modern and contemporary art, carrying out condition reports and specific interventions. Ultimately, the pieces will be ready to travel and be admired. It is fantastic to work closely with an organization like this, which takes care of the conservation and research of each piece with the best possible means.”

Our exhibition Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools at the Denver Art Museum is getting closer! However, preparations for such a large-scale project involve a lot of work. Our colleague Laura Geudens is happy to take you behind the scenes.

“As I have a conservation and restoration background, I support my colleagues in reviewing the condition reports for this exhibition. Before an artwork leaves for an exhibition, it is subjected to an extensive condition check. Based on that, I examine whether the condition of the work corresponds to the expectations. For me, it was particularly interesting to examine and document the collection of silver objects. These pieces are travelling for the first time and thus received a completely new condition report.”

Arent van Bolten, A Silver Relief with the Temptation of Christ, c.1600-1610 Damage view, on which slight tarnishing of the silver is indicated

“An example of this is A Silver Relief with the Temptation of Christ, a silver plaque forged by Arent van Bolten (1573-1633). Damage views were drawn up of the piece, which are images showing with a colour code the main damages and points of interest. Based on these images and for the exhibition’s purpose, the specific needs of the objects are determined. For this piece, it was decided to apply a felt layer to the contact points between the support and this object, allowing the piece to be displayed vertically safely.”

This month, we had the honour and pleasure of welcoming Dr Andrea Seim to The Phoebus Foundation’s art conservation studio. With her exceptional knowledge and research in dendrochronology – the scientific method of dating annual rings of trees (also called growth rings) to the exact year in which they were formed – Dr Seim is able to date and identify the wood used in paintings on panel.

The width of the annual rings is measured by means of a macro photograph. This plank is part of the oak panel of The Annunciation by Jef Van der Veken (1872-1964)

During her stay, Dr Seim examined the wood from the panel Virgin with Child and Two Putti in Floral Wreath (c.1600) by Andries Daniels ( active 1599-1602) and Ambrosius Francken I (ca. 1544/1545-1618). For the occasion, she expressed her interest in different research methods, pointing out the importance of documentation and research on environmental and climatic changes around the world. These historical changes are an important anchor point in the analysis of historical and archaeological wood. In addition, she explained the new developments in dendrochronological research. The Phoebus Foundation was delighted to facilitate this visit with a small workshop on wood research.

Wood anatomical identification of the planks for  Adoration of the Magi by Simon Pereyns (1530-1589)

Our sub-collection of Latin American art is also undergoing conservation treatments! Phoebus Conservator Naomi Meulemans is happy to take you behind the paint layers of Amorphous Figures by Chilean artist Roberto Matta (1911-2002).

“Matta created this painting in 1940, at the beginning of a pioneering period in his career. Not only his surrealist artworks but also his original choice of materials made him a  progressive modernist. Did you know that he even used fluorescent pigments for Amorphous Figures? Before the Second World War, this was very unusual in the art world! Research shows that he not only added the pigment for an aesthetic, illuminating effect but also to give deeper meaning to the artwork. The painting lights up when exposed to UV (ultra violet) light and lets the underlying figures flicker.”

With normal light
With UV light

“In 2016, together with Conservator Giovanna Tamà, I investigated the ageing characteristics of the fluorescent pigment, with quite a dramatic result: after fifty years, the paint samples showed clear signs of ageing and after one hundred years, the fluorescent effect would even have varnished completely. Obviously, we want to avoid this! Therefore, it is important to protect the artwork against strong UV radiation. We opted for an adapted retouching method and a special frame. In order to protect the fluorescent layers but still be able to admire them from time to time, we installed a light switch on the frame to provide the artwork with controlled UV light when necessary. Doing so, we also created a surprising effect for the spectator!”

You may have noticed… Our loan activities do not stand still! Moreover, ever since the end of the (worst) Covid-19 pandemic, we have a particularly large number of artworks that are leaving our warehouse on a short or longer journey to be presented in Belgium and abroad. Fortunately, Collection Consultant Katrijn Van Bragt and Conservator Anke Van Achter are there to keep everything on track!

Katrijn Van Bragt and Anke Van Achter

“From Los Angeles to Mechelen, from Old Masters to alabaster sculptures, … The variety of works of art that are requested on loan is enormous! The institutions that call upon our collection are also extremely diverse: from historic churches to ultramodern museums. Each loan request therefore requires a unique approach.”

Conservator Carlos González Juste is taking care of Susanna and the Elders by Jan Massys

“First, we consider whether the requested artwork is available during the demanded period of time and whether the object may travel and be presented in the institution. After all, everything depends on the fragility of the object and the circumstances of the venue. Is the exhibition space airconditioned and safe? Does the artwork require additional transport or installation requirements, such as a climate box or shock-absorbing crate? Some works even get a full conservation treatment so that they are perfectly ready to be exhibited.”

Saint Barbara and Charles V in their custom-made packaging

“After all agreements with the borrower and the transport company are final, we draw up an extensive condition report. Once the artwork is packed and loaded into the truck, the journey can start!”

Meet our new Phoebus Fellow: Alexandra Taylor! All the way from New Zealand, Alexandra joined our conservation team last month. She will assist our conservators in various projects for the next three months.

Alexandra immediately started with the treatment of Jan Miel’s Figures Feasting at a Fair in Prati, outside the Walls of Rome, with the Basilica di San Pietro and Monte Mario beyond. This painting was commissioned by Marchese Tommaso Raggi (1595/6-1679) in Rome around 1650.

During treatment, varnish removal

‘The analysis and technical research which precede a conservation treatment really fascinate me! They are the ultimate way to get closer to the master and discover his materials and techniques. These are skills I would like to develop further. The Phoebus Foundation is strongly committed to these analyses, so it is a great opportunity for me to collaborate in the Phoebus studio for a few months. Thanks to infrared reflectography, for example, I discovered inscriptions and pentimenti in Jan Miel’s painting, which are barely visible with regular light and therefore much harder to understand!’

Pentimenti discoveries using regular light, edited in photoshop

‘The restoration treatment is not a piece of cake! Not only do we need to remove dark layers of varnish and overpaint, we also need to tackle the canvas completely. The painting will look so much more colourful and stable after the treatment!’

Curious about the final result of Alexandra’s work? Keep an eye on our website, newsletter, Instagram and Facebook!

Crazy about Dymphna opened a month ago in Geel! Project coordinator Niels Schalley is happy to tell you more about the construction and installation of this fascinating exhibition:

  “After a two-year delay because of Covid-19, it was fantastic to finally be able to bring the exhibition to the Saint Dymphna Church in Geel. We were eagerly looking forward to the installation of the Dymphna altarpiece in this unique setting. Thanks to the Crazy about Dymphna exhibition in Tallinn, we had already carried out the entire set-up once before and therefore, we were confident that everything would go smoothly.”

  “After a two-year delay because of Covid-19, it was fantastic to finally be able to bring the exhibition to the Saint Dymphna Church in Geel. We were eagerly looking forward to the installation of the Dymphna altarpiece in this unique setting. Thanks to the Crazy about Dymphna exhibition in Tallinn, we had already carried out the entire set-up once before and therefore, we were confident that everything would go smoothly.”

“In tegenstelling tot de locatie in Tallinn, de ontwijde Niguliste kerk, is de Sint-Dimpnakerk nog wel actief. Dit is een enorm voordeel aangezien het Dimpna-altaarstuk op die manier huist tussen de vele verborgen kunstschatten in een van de mooiste kerken van Vlaanderen. De acht panelen van het altaarstuk zijn zo opgesteld dat ze een echte ommegang vormen. Bijhorende sokkels met video’s vertellen razend interessante weetjes en emotionele getuigenissen. Op die manier ontluikt het verhaal van de heilige Dimpna in al haar glorie en facetten.”

Curious? Book your ticket now for only one euro!

Conservators Titania Hess and Laura Guilluy take you behind the scenes of the Phoebus conservation studio!

Jacob Jordaens, Christ Triumphant Among the Nine Penitents (before restoration), c.1635-40
After cleaning and removal of the varnish

Christ Triumphiant, by Jacob Jordaens, has undergone a full restoration treatment! As the painting was relined during a previous treatment, the canvas was in excellent condition. Therefore, the treatment consisted mainly of the removal of oxidized varnish and encrusted soil. With gentle solvents and aqueous gels, we managed to reveal the original paint layer and its astounding palette. A few retouches and two layers of varnish were the final operations to our conservation treatment.’

Ma-XRF scan
Designation of main zones with modified compositions

‘Prior to this treatment, the painting was subject to an intensive research, realised by Phoebus head conservator Sven Van Dorst. Using technical analysis such as Ma-XRF scans, various changes in the composition were discovered probably due to changes in the sizes of the canvas.

It turned out Jordaens painted a first composition on a less wide canvas! After a time, the Antwerp master enlarged the painting so he could realize the final composition. This enlarging of the canvas has already been observed in other paintings attributed to Jordaens, which are part of The Phoebus Foundation collection. The observation of these paintings was crucial in understanding the technics of the Antwerp great master.’

After restoration

We start this new year with launching exciting conservation projects at the Phoebus conservation studio! Naomi Meulemans, conservator of the modern and contemporary sub-collections, oversees the restoration campaign of the installation Los Muñecos, created in 1960 by Italian-Argentinian artist Libero Badii (1916 – 2001).

Libero Badii, one of the Los Muñecos, 1916

Los Muñecos or The Dolls is an impressive installation of 14 wooden painted sculptures of almost 5 meters high. The instability of the wood and the drastic flaking of the paint layer demand an extensive restoration treatment.  

Each doll bears a title that refers to a social personification. Just like our social connections in society, the sculptures are connected to each other in space by a cable. Moreover, they are also attached by a ‘Tablero’,  symbol for the wheel of fortune.

Installation scale model and wheel

Conservator Naomi started this campaign already in 2017, with a preliminary study in collaboration with collaboration with conservator and contemporary art specialist Frederika Huys. Additionally, a material analysis was performed in the studio. With surprising results: x-ray photography showed that the current damage is partly a result of the manufacturing process! Together with conservator Giovanna Tamà and the Royal Institute for Art Heritage (KIK-IRPA), the final conservation and research will be executed throughout 2022.

Stay tuned for the result!

As usual at The Phoebus Foundation, conservation and research go hand in hand. A beautiful example is The Virgin of the Candlelight, an anonymous Peruvian work on canvas from the 18th century which is part of the collection Latin-American art from the Colonial period. Conservator Carlos González Juste offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the research and conservation of this remarkable painting!

Anonymous, The Virgin of the Candlelight, 18th century (before treatment)

‘Due to the thinness of the paint layer, it was already visible to the naked eye that there might be a previous painting underneath the current composition. Technical studies (IRR photography, x-ray images, MA-XRF scanning and wood analysis) have confirmed our suspicions and have revealed the existence of a completely finished painting underneath!’

Varnish and overpaint removal

‘With the conservation treatment and research of The Virgin of the Candlelight, we not only try to preserve the physical integrity of the artwork and recover its original colourful and delicate appearance. We also increase our knowledge about the techniques, materials and habits of the 17th and 18th century painting practices in Peru.’

Detail of the Virgin of the Candlelight with normal light (left) and x-ray image of the same area (right)

For the exhibition James Ensor in Kunsthalle Mannheim (DE), conservator Naomi Meulemans travelled in 2021 as a courier to Germany to help with the installation of no less than 5 artworks that The Phoebus Foundation gave in loan for this project.

The work of the Belgian artist James Ensor (1860-1949), the famous “painter of masks”, is deeply rooted in the history of the Kunsthalle Mannheim. As early as 1928, the painter was celebrated there in a solo exhibition as an important contemporary exceptional artist. The exhibition in Mannheim focused on Ensor’s famous self-portrait-mask-death-still life motif, which claim an important place in his oeuvre.

James Ensor, Skeletons in Disguise, 1894

The restrictions due to Covid-19 made it quite a challenge for our courier to attend. Naomi, however, managed to oversee the installation of all 5 artworks and made sure that the climate in the museum rooms was controlled correctly – an absolute requirement for these valuable and fragile artworks.

Phoebus Fellow Anna Rota (IT) is happy to offer you a glimpse behind the scenes of her conservation project at The Phoebus Foundation:

‘Despite its small size (25 x 25 cm), this painting by the studio of Joos Van Cleve (1485-1541), immediately attracts our attention. The unusual diamond-shaped support seems to be unique in the artist’s oeuvre and raises questions about the distribution of diamond-shaped paintings in Renaissance painting.’

Joos Van Cleve (studio), The Virgin with Child and a Pear, c.1530 Before treatment, framed

‘The facial tones, with such a soft transition between light and shadow, can be compared to Leonardo Da Vinci’s “sfumato.” The artist was particularly attentive to detail and used various material tricks: just look at the thickness of the colour layer of the pearls in Mary’s hair or the folds of the white veil along her neckline. Mary’s hair and the faces and hands, on the other hand, are rendered with very thin brushstrokes.’

Underpainting, detail visible at the edges

‘The removal of varnish and retouching has brought back the beautiful colors of the facial tones, as well as some details that were previously less visible. The conservation treatment has allowed us to discover more about the painting technique of Van Cleve and his studio.’

After cleaning and removal of varnish

Art historian Anne-Rieke van Schaik (NL) focused during het fellowship on the sub-collection Topography and Cartography. Anne-Rieke is glad to give an insight in her Phoebus Fellowship program:

‘Early modern media, the narrative qualities of cartography, and the intertwining of maps, books and prints in this period are really my cup of tea. As member of the Explokart Research Programme on the History of Cartography (University of Amsterdam) I am working on various projects such as a specialized database and a handbook of historical cartography.’

‘During my Phoebus Fellowship, I examined the wide variety of objects in the rich Topography and Cartography collection of The Phoebus Foundation; ranging from sea charts, military news maps, cityscapes and early world maps to colored atlases, travel books and globes. My job was to perfection the inventory of the objects and to improve the catalog descriptions. The striking research results and treasures of the collection will be made accessible to a wider audience later on, for example in an exhibition or publication.’

Anonymous, Conquest of Tienen, after 1635
Johannes Van Keulen, The Great New Water Atlas or Water World Atlas, 1688

Time flies! After more than seven months, we said goodbye to the city of Tallinn at the end of November 2021, where we organized the exhibitions From Memling to Rubens and Crazy about Dymphna at the Kadriorg Museum and the Niguliste Museum. It was such an honour to travel abroad for the first time ever with our extensive collection of old masters! We are extremely grateful to our partners in Estonia for this unique opportunity. Due to their great success, both exhibitions were extended by one month so that visitors could enjoy these masterpieces even longer. At the beginning of December 2021, the team of The Phoebus Foundation travelled to snowy Tallinn to supervise the dismantling of the exhibitions and to bring all the art works back home.

Collection registration and beautiful books don’t exist without perfect images. Take a look behind the scenes of our photo studio where our photographers capture various artworks with their lenses. Michel is happy to tell you more about this fascinating and challenging task.

Is there a great difference between the photography of artworks and other photographical genres?

‘Fine art photography really is a specialization. Most people think we just put a painting or sculpture in front of a white fond, we press a button and that’s it. It’s not that easy in reality. The photography of artworks is very technical because of the large diversity of objects. A glass vase, a manuscript or a painting each demand their own setting and lighting. Moreover, they need to be adjusted over and over again during the photoshoot. In fashion photography for example, the lighting is fixed and the model tries different poses to get a perfect picture. In art photography it’s the photographer who needs to play with light and shadow because the object doesn’t move obviously! (laughs). It’s always a new puzzle that needs to be solved.’

Michel in action

Where does your specialization and fascination for fine art photography come from?

‘By accident! One of my first jobs was the photography of two terra cotta vases of the Dominican Republic for an advertisement. I have been photographing for various institutions and projects ever since. After all these years, it is still an enrichment for me. The variety of objects I get to see through my lens is extraordinary! I also get the chance to have a close look at the artworks and I often discover remarkable details.’

Which type of object do you like the most?

‘Definitely sculptures. In most cases, every side of the artwork has been embellished as if the sculptor wants you to walk around. As a photographer I always try to find the best angle in order to display the sculpture as vividly as possible. It really is an experiment with light and shadow.’

Discover a very special part of The Phoebus Foundation’s collection: Maritime and Logistic Heritage! A team of enthusiastic volunteers is in charge of the daily routine of this extraordinary collection. As retired dockworkers with a passion for heritage they know this collection of historical risers, tractors, trucks, and measuring and weighing devices like the back of their hand. Every week, the group gathers together in the warehouse Argentin in the northern part of Antwerp to work on the conservation and the accessibility of the collection.

Volunteers at work at the Antigone crane

For some of our volunteers, a port heritage day already starts before dawn. Early bird Juul is always out and about at 6 AM. One after another, colleagues arrive and join the group. Around 8:30 AM there is a small meeting to discuss the daily schedule whilst enjoying a cup of coffee. All volunteers have their own unique background and expertise which makes everyone an essential member of the team. Juul and Roger are specialists in welding; Freddy knows all the secrets of tinkering and electrotechnics is Fred’s cup of tea. This diversity makes it possible to work on multiple large projects at the same time. An important element of their tasks is also the conservation of rare heritage objects. “The current major project we are working on is the Antigoon crane”, Fred explains. “It is a port vehicle of the early fifties and probably the last example left of its type. With lots of patience and effort, we managed to complete the mechanical work. It certainly wasn’t a piece of cake because we didn’t have a single plan or piece of documentation. Luckily we could count on the craftsmanship and expertise of our team members to solve these problems together.”

Volunteers in action

In small groups, the volunteers diligently continue their work. Painting, sanding, welding, restoration of all possible tools,… before you know it, it is time for a well-deserved coffee break where our volunteers share their memories from ‘good ol’ times’. “This is very important to us”, Harry, the youngest of the group, explains. “After retiring as commercial manager in the port industry after 43 years, I am grateful I could become part of this team. I have always been intrigued by history and I am happy I can contribute to the Logistics and Maritime Heritage here. Even though I don’t have a lot of technical expertise, I can cooperate in the large valuation project of the collection. We make sure every object is measured, catalogued and photographed. Some pieces are truly unique and have an extraordinary history, which always fascinates me. The many stories and interesting anecdotes bring the items back to life.” The other volunteers share the same passion and motivation.

The technical know-how of the volunteers is extremely useful

The team has completed many large conservation projects throughout the years. This is essential to volunteer Martin. “Our aim is to preserve the maritime heritage for future generations. The Antwerp port and her workmen are world famous because of their craftsmanship and professionalism. Sadly, this history is getting lost rapidly. The generation of whom I learned the tricks of the trade is now between 75 and 91 years old. Acts and tools from back then are no longer in use. Therefore, it is our task to pass on this important heritage to the future generations. We hope to realize this with our efforts in the Argentin warehouse.”

The diversity of the collection is huge!

Until 12 PM the team collaborates on various port heritage projects. Then, it’s time for a well-deserved lunch. Volunteer Jacques, who has been a ship’s cook for years, often surprises the team with soup or a home-cooked meal. Old memories and various port anecdotes are shared around the table. Together, the volunteers dream about the future. “Hopefully, we can reopen our doors for group visits soon. This way, we can share our passion and moreover this exceptional collection with a broad audience again.”

Take a look behind the scenes at the restoration treatment of one of the oldest oil paintings from the collection of The Phoebus Foundation. Dating from c.1418-25, the artwork is even older than the famous Ghent Altarpiece by the brothers van Eyck (1432). Consisting of four panels, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was probably originally part of a larger altarpiece.

Unknown master, Four Panels with Scenes of the Life of the Virgin Mary (before restoration), c.1418-25

If you look closely, you can see that the artist was already very progressive by casting shadows on his figures, giving them a three-dimensional character. However, a technical cast shadow is still missing, which indicates that we are at an important turning point in Western art history. For this reason, we recently decided to start an extensive conservation treatment. During the treatment we hope to learn more about the geographical origin of the panels and about the methods and materials used by the painter.

Mechanical cleaning of the paint layers

At the start of the restoration it turned out that both the execution and the gilding on the panel were in good condition. The treatment mainly provides for the removal of discoloured and outdated layers of dirt so that the sparkling colours can be visible again. Special care is required, especially on the fragile gilding. In the 15th century, the artist made small impressions in the gold leaf by using metal awls or punches in order to obtain the floral motifs in the upper part of the painting (heaven) which make this work so special. By removing the varnish and dirt, these motifs finally became visible again.

Detail of the cleaning of the punched pattern

The conservation treatment is spread over 3 years and is carried out by Sven Van Dorst, head of the conservation studio of The Phoebus Foundation, in collaboration with Hilde Weissenborn, an independent conservator specialized in the treatment of 15th and 16th century Flemish masters.

Conservators Hilde and Sven at work

Especially for At home with Jordaens, various works by Jacob Jordaens underwent an extensive conservation treatment. Conservators Jill and Ellen Keppens take you behind the paint layers of The Sleeping Antiope Approached by Jupiter (1660).

Before restoration

‘This painting reminded us of an old acquaintance! A few years ago, we restored a nearly identical sleeping beauty by Jordaens: Psyche. This time, it’s Antiope, accompanied by Jupiter who, disguised as a satyr, removes the cloth from her body.’

During restoration

‘Jordaens and his contempories fancied erotic themes like this and especially the contrast between Antiope’s porcelain naked skin and Jupiter’s ugliness. This contradiction, however, became completely covered by a thick layer of varnish. When the varnish and the old retouches were removed, not only the beautiful colours but also Jordaens’ sketchy technique came to light again. The eagle’s wings are painted with a few quick brushstrokes of diluted brown paint, under which the grey colour of the ground layer shines through. In the feathers, Jordaens also applied a few thick, bright blue strokes.’

After restoration

‘These sketchy areas and the rather limited format cast doubt on the purpose of this painting. Was it a finished work of art? Part of an elaborate preliminary study? Or did it serve as an example for a client? Whatever the case, The Sleeping Antiope is currently back at home with Jordaens at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem!’