In December 2014 Andrew Shannon was jailed for six years for damaging the $10m Monet painting Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat. Shannon claimed he had accidentally fallen into the work at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin while suffering an attack of angina. Two witnesses said he lunged towards the painting with his fist ‘like a hammer’.
The three resulting tears, the longest being 25cm, took 18 months to repair. The restoration team successfully glued each individual strand of canvas back together. They also managed to gather tiny fragments of paint that fell from the canvas in order to place Monet’s sculpted lashings of colour back in the correct places — just as you might piece together a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle under a microscope.
Having returned the painting to its prized spot in the gallery, the restoration team built an elegant website describing the process of restoring such a valuable work.
We talked to Ele von Monschaw, Easel Paintings Conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland and Chair of Irish Professional Conservators and Restorers Association, to find out what the team discovered about Monet's practice in the course of restoring the painting to its former glory.
What’s been so significant about this restoration project?
Ele von Monschaw: ‘A Monet work like this is so in demand for display that we’d never otherwise get an opportunity to study the materials and technique in such detail. Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat was painted in 1884, an important year in Monet’s career because it was the same year that the term “impressionism” was coined by a French critic to describe Monet’s technique. Most writers at the time thought his work looked unfinished at best, so it’s interesting to see how Monet was working at that time.’
‘There are no under-drawings so he would have definitely painted directly onto the canvas. More amazingly, there are no corrections’
Some art historians argue that Monet was carefully crafting his fresh, instantaneous style. Did you find anything to support that?
‘When he was alive Monet said he painted whole works in eight or nine minutes. As extraordinary as it sounds, we could only find evidence that confirmed his claims. For a start, the canvas is very fine, doubly as light as a studio canvas — probably so that he could carry it outdoors to his boat studio. There are no under-drawings so he would have definitely painted directly onto the canvas. More amazingly, there are no corrections — and we really looked for them carefully with X-rays. The only changes that we think might have been done in his studio later are a few touches to the orange leaves, and his signature.’
What’s the most interesting discovery that you made?
‘We can tell he prepped his canvas with a pinkish-grey light wash to save himself time while capturing his view. He’s used a lot of ground and background as sky and water. It’s a genius way of painting quickly. But it also helps the lighter colours to appear brighter than they would on white, which means he could literally apply the paint from the tubes without mixing. The canvas also has the stamp of the Parisian supplier, which is quite rare for a work like this. It’s a high-grade canvas, the best possible quality, which shows that even at this stage in his career when he was being rejected by the establishment, he took himself extremely seriously.’
Main image: Claude Monet (1840-1926), Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat, 1874. Image of work post-damage, June 2012. Photo © National Gallery of Ireland
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