Noah Charney: Can you guess what's wrong with these paintings?

Recorded atAugust 04, 2022
Duration (min:sec)05:24
Video TypeTED-Ed Original
Words per minute157.15 slow
Readability (FK)40.88 very difficult
SpeakerNoah Charney

Official TED page for this talk


Prior to the mid-20th century, art restorers took a heavy-handed approach, often drastically altering paintings in the name of "improving" art. Today, they focus on keeping the original work intact with minimal intervention, and must regularly contend with past modifications. So, how is damaged artwork repaired? Noah Charney explains the painstaking process of restoring priceless artifacts. [Directed by Michael Kalopaidis, Zedem Media, narrated by Addison Anderson, music by Manolis Manoli].

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:07 These paintings are in peril.
200:09 All three have been defaced, some in ways that are almost impossible to see with the naked eye.
300:15 Can you guess how they've been altered?
400:17 You might be surprised.
500:19 When a museum curator inspected this portrait, attributed to the 16th century Italian painter Bronzino, they suspected it was a modern fake.
600:28 However, closely examining the cracks on its surface, an art conservator discovered that it was from that era— It had just undergone drastic changes in recent centuries.
700:39 Using x-ray technology, they peered under the outer surface of paint and saw the countenance of a completely different woman.
800:48 Essential parts of the painting had been modified during a 19th century restoration.
900:53 Prior to the mid-20th century, art restorers took a more heavy-handed approach, often believing they were improving art.
1001:01 Nowadays, they focus on keeping the original work intact with minimal intervention.
1101:07 When they need to fix something up, they usually make their markings visually and chemically distinct from the original, so they can be harmlessly removed.
1201:16 But the work of past restorers is a threat they regularly contend with— as was the case with this portrait.
1301:23 To recover the original, the conservator began removing the outer varnish coat.
1401:28 Varnish is commonly used to protect paintings from debris and make their colors pop.
1501:33 But the natural varnishes past restorers applied eventually darkened, which is what gives older paintings that aged, yellowy look.
1601:42 Slowly dissolving the varnish, the conservator uncovered crisp colors below.
1701:47 Taking small samples from the added and original paint layers, they analyzed the compositions of each.
1801:54 Then, they decided which solvents could dissolve the overpainting while minimally affecting the original.
1902:00 Carefully dabbing the canvas with them, they removed the overpainting’s dainty hands and idealized face.
2002:07 The true painting underneath revealed Isabella of the Italian Medici dynasty.
2102:13 The portrait isn’t Bronzino’s, but it is from around 1570, and may have been painted by one of his students.
2202:21 Its Victorian makeover was likely done to boost sales because the original subject wasn’t considered attractive.
2302:28 But now, Isabella is back, meeting her viewer’s gaze directly.
2402:34 This painting, “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid,” is actually Bronzino’s, and it was completed around 1545.
2502:42 It centers on a kiss between Venus and her son Cupid– but it’s been subtly altered.
2602:48 When London’s National Gallery acquired it in 1860, the Gallery’s director deemed it too risqué for Victorian England.
2702:57 So, he commissioned a restorer to obscure Venus’s tongue and nipple.
2803:02 A century after this modification, art conservators analyzed and removed the overpainting with select solvents.
2903:09 In the process, they also realized that the veil covering Venus’s crotch and the branch hiding Cupid’s posterior were other add-ons.
3003:18 Removing two layers of censorship from the painting, it was finally free to boast its provocative original details.
3103:26 This massive painting called “The Night Watch” was completed by Rembrandt in 1642.
3203:33 Since then, it’s endured one dramatic amputation, two stabbings, an acid attack, and centuries of grime.
3303:42 A museum guard immediately neutralized the acid with water.
3403:46 Restorers lifted the grime, revealing that the painting was not set at night, and healed the slashes using adhesive and extra canvas backing.
3503:56 But they faced an even trickier problem.
3603:59 In 1715, strips were removed from all sides of the canvas, including two whole feet from the left, to fit it inside Amsterdam’s Town Hall.
3704:10 They've been lost ever since.
3804:12 But a multi-year conservation project that began in 2019 replaced the missing pieces.
3904:20 They managed this by training an artificial intelligence to digitally paint in Rembrandt’s style.
4004:27 Then, using another artist’s rendering of the original, the program recreated and printed the painting’s lost sections.
4104:37 Finally, the team returned “The Night Watch” to its full size, with AI-generated best guesses to fill in the blanks.
4204:45 All of these paintings had been altered, but none of them were irrevocably ruined.
4304:50 With painstaking scientific analysis and technical skill, art conservators immortalize priceless artifacts.
4404:58 They counteract sudden damage and creeping threats— and sometimes, they perform near miracles.
4505:06 This video was made possible with support from Marriott Hotels.
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