Research into conservation possibilities for Van Gogh’s La Berceuse

La Berceuse, portrait of Madame Roulin, which Vincent van Gogh painted in December 1888 and January 1889, is one of the museum’s best known and best loved paintings. It has, therefore, long been the desire to examine the conservation possibilities for the work. This involves mainly the different layers of varnish that were applied to the painting over the years and that have previously been partially removed in some small areas. With the naked eye, it is discernible that these varnishes have become yellow with age and even brown in some places, where they have accumulated along Van Gogh’s characteristic thick brushstrokes.

Furthermore, old remnants of glue, which have also become brown, were discovered in the course of the research. These are most likely to originate from an early treatment of the painting, before it was acquired by Helene Kröller-Müller in 1912. All these non-original, discoloured materials have a negative effect on the colours and sheen of the painting. Therefore, in autumn 2014, a study was carried out to determine whether the varnish and glue can be removed. Small tests were performed under the microscope with a combination of solvents and different methods of application.

These showed that the varnish and glue can be removed from the background, the face, the hands and the dress of Madame Roulin. This is not the case for the red floor, the chair and the dark green jacket. With the current expertise and materials it is impossible to remove the varnish and glue without damaging the paint. The red floor contains vermillion, a paint that often causes problems in Van Gogh’s paintings of. Such as a few years ago at the Van Gogh Museum, when the varnish could not be removed from the red blanket in his painting Bedroom. The paint of the dark green jacket contains emerald green and may have become increasingly sensitive due to Van Gogh’s use of materials on the one hand, and the presumably extreme conditions during previous treatments long ago on the other. Through the varnish, it is already noticeable that the tops of the brushstrokes are lighter than the rest of the paint.

Because the varnish cannot be removed from a relatively large section of the painting, the decision has been made to take no action at all. Partial varnish removal would cause a serious imbalance in the colours scheme and sheen of the painting. And while the painting is not currently ‘in balance’ – after all, in some areas it has a single layer of varnish and in others two layers – the difference between the partly cleaned and unclean sections is still less than it would be with a partial varnish/glue removal. The painting’s original ‘balance’ cannot be restored anyway, as some of the original colour has been lost. Thus, the face of Madame Roulin was once bright yellow. Van Gogh used a chrome yellow which over time has darkened to ochre brown. The white flowers on the wallpaper were originally bright pink. Van Gogh writes about this in his letters and it is still visible in the unvarnished edges of the painting. There, the organic red pigment has not discoloured as the edges were always protected from light by the frame. The red floor was also once lighter and brighter in colour. Fortunately, despite all the discoloured pigments and non-original layers, the colours of Van Gogh are still powerful enough for one to thoroughly enjoy this painting.

Esther van Duijn, 3 November 2014