Blog — 13 Feb 2012 — Vera Blok

The Stedelijk’s restoration department is currently at work on three paintings by Marc Chagall: Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers, Motherhood and La Synagogue de Safed. The first two date from 1912-1913, when Chagall was living in Paris. They were exhibited at the Stedelijk as early as 1914 and bought immediately afterwards by an Amsterdam-based collector called Willem Beffie. In 1930 he sold them on to a collector called Regnault, who gave them to the Stedelijk on long-term loan. In 1953 the paintings were acquired by the Dutch state and they are now the responsibility of the cultural heritage department (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed or RCE). The two pictures are therefore ‘old friends’ of Stedelijk Museum visitors and deserve to be cherished. Now, therefore, almost a century after they were created, they are under restoration, together with Chagall’s 1931 painting La Synagogue de Safed (property of the Stedelijk Museum).

Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers shows Chagall in his Paris studio. At top left, a window affords a view of the Eiffel Tower. At top right, there is a glimpse of Chagall’s birthplace, Vitebsk. Chagall depicts himself as an artist, holding a palette dotted with real daubs of oil paint. Like the rest of the painting, the palette was covered with a layer of varnish. This was applied during a previous restoration, when the painting was also relined.

In places, the wax-resin compound used at that time to apply the new canvas to its back had worked through to the front of the painting and was visible over the paint layers. Both the varnish and the patches of compound had darkened and dulled over time, concealing Chagall’s brushwork. The removal of the varnish layer and patches of compound has revealed the painting’s original bright colours. The palette has been restored to its original brilliance and Chagall’s subtle variations between matte and glossy brushstrokes can once again be appreciated.

The two other paintings are undergoing more limited restoration: flaking paint is being consolidated and surface dirt removed.

Alongside the restoration, research is also being done to improve knowledge of Chagall’s painting materials. A better understanding of these will enable the Museum to conserve the paintings better in future.