The Ethicality of Resurrecting Dying Artwork

By Macey Bartels

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Photo by Maxim Kotov on Unsplash

In 1986, a disgruntled museum goer approached post-war artist Barnett Newman’s controversial monochrome painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III and slashed it lengthwise multiple times with a box knife. The damage being extremely extensive, the painting was instantly sent off to be restored by an art conservator who had worked closely with Newman prior to his death. However, upon its return to the museum, it was immediately evident that the painting was not the same bright hue that it had been before its vandalism. It was discovered that the restorer had not, in fact, carefully repaired the canvas as would be expected, but had instead painted over the artwork entirely, with a paint roller and the type of acrylics used for walls in houses (Roman). Completely and forever ruined, the painting sits on display as only a memory of its former self. But was it the vandal who destroyed the artwork, or the attempted restoration that finished it off?

One of the most heavily debated topics in the art world for the past few centuries has been how to go about restoring and conserving artwork, be it discolored or damaged, in a way that does not alter the original intent of the piece or make any significant or noticeable changes. The range of opinions on how to go about this is vast, and most conflict with each other, making it nearly impossible to compromise, especially when the stakes are as high as attempting to restore a Michelangelo or a DaVinci. Three overarching opinions dominate this discussion: attempt to restore the painting as carefully as possible, do not touch the painting at all, or make any alterations deemed necessary. An endless number of questions can be raised that reveal issues with any of these opinions: If we paint over a Caravaggio, is it still a Caravaggio? Should conservators only be able to use the materials that were available to the artist at the time? What if the artist intended for the paints and varnishes to fade or yellow over time? Are we erasing history by saving art? The finality of art restoration makes the weight of every decision overbearing to the point where most art historians and conservators are too afraid to make any decisions at all. As many iconic masterpieces grow older, the debate over whether we should attempt to preserve them becomes more pressing, and as restoration technology becomes more advanced, the decision on how exactly to go about conserving artworks remains a hot topic. The alteration of any form of artwork in an attempt to restore it or increase the artwork’s longevity is questionable and requires insight into the process of conservation, the authority involved, and the intent of the artist.

In this essay I will walk the reader through the process of restoration from start to finish, outlining the range of issues and controversy within the subject and discussing the multitude of opinions on the topic. I will focus on specific artworks and use them as examples throughout so as to help understand the context of the debate.

What is Conservation and Restoration?

Conservation and restoration, while similar and often used interchangeably, actually refer to different things. The difference is clearly explained by Caitlin O'Riordan, an attorney from Emory Law:

The overall meaning of “conservation” is the act of utilizing specified techniques to maintain or restore the original aesthetic of a work of art. Art conservation, as opposed to restoration, refers to techniques that attempt to return a piece of art to its original state by addressing any damage or deterioration appearing on the surface of the art. This process also includes cleaning and removing any surface features that detract from the work’s original image (or how the conservators believe the original image appeared). Restoration falls under the umbrella term “art conservation.” Art restoration means adding or replacing pieces of the artwork to restore the whole image or work as it originally appeared. The Art Conservators Alliance refers to this practice as “compensation for losses.” (410)

While conservation and restoration are quite different, they both come under attack when the topic of altering artwork is brought up, as they both take great risks when creating additions to a piece, or removing aspects of it. In this paper I will use the terms interchangeably, as both the conservation and the restoration of artwork apply to the controversies brought to light by the art community.

What Authority Do We Have to Decide What Happens to Art?

17th Century Dutch painter Rembrandt has famously been known for his work with warm yellow tones and dark shadows common to the Baroque style that was popular during the time he was alive. In the early 20th century it became evident that there was a need for some form of restoration to his painting The Syndics, as there was visible lifting paint coming off of the canvas (Van Duijn). When a painting is determined to need repair, the issue arises of whether or not the painting is damaged enough to be sent off for restoration. Many conservators jump at the opportunity to use their advanced technology to “save” the art, while art historians often insist on preventing the alterations so as to not destroy the pieces at the hand of an unknowledgeable (and often unknown) employee (O’Riordan).

So who gets to have the final say on when a piece of art needs alteration, and who is deemed fit enough to be able to work on the painting? Surprisingly, art historians are often left out of the decision to remove a piece of art and send it away for work, despite the fact that they would be the most knowledgeable and useful accessory to the piece. The museum and conservation communities are commonly separate from the art historian community, and the workers often do not appreciate the technique and styles that are in play when approaching each work. In the case of The Syndics, members of the Amsterdam Artist’s Society Arti et Amicitiae showed disappointment in the fact that no artists were contacted during the long cleaning and restoration process, as was common at the time when restoring master paintings (Van Duijn). In addition to this, the restorer does not necessarily have to be at a master level in order to be commissioned to work on a master artwork. As mentioned in the introduction, Daniel Goldreyer was believed to have sufficient experience in art and conservation to be able to restore Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III following its vandalism. He even had the opportunity to work with Newman before his death, so he had personal insight into the intentions and techniques of the artist. Despite all this, he still managed to destroy the painting by covering it entirely in dull red acrylic paint (Roman). This is not the only occurrence of neglect from the conservator’s end, as many great artworks have been irreversibly damaged by inexperienced workers. It is also not uncommon for many of these conservation artists to remain unnamed and, therefore, not held accountable for whatever damage they may have caused.

Do We Even Do Anything at All?

Why is it that the recently discovered Da Vinci Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million in 2017? Had the painting been created by any other artist it may have skated by for the couple hundred dollars it was originally valued at, lucky to end up in a museum solely because of its age. Instead, the painting is now owned by the Saudi Royal family, not without first breaking a couple of records for most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. But how did this painting go from being worth a mere two hundred dollars to almost half a billion? The answer is simply because of the name associated with it. We attach cultural significance to certain names, which may be the reason why a bunch of random paint splotches by Jackson Pollock sits in the Museum of Modern Art and the one you made in art class is pinned to your fridge.

Knowing this, how can we make the decision to alter a painting in any way? If you knew that the Picasso you were looking at was mostly painted over by an amatuer and unknown artist, would you still hold it to the same value as a genuine, untouched Picasso? To properly understand the gravity of these questions, consider the philosophical thought experiment the Ship of Theseus. The exercise goes as follows: if a ship were to over time be replaced board by board until every single piece had been replaced with a replica, is it still the same ship? If over the course of many centuries we paint over the Sistine Chapel to keep it from fading, can we still praise it as a masterpiece? Can we still credit Michelangelo?

The reason why many paintings are altered when it is unnecessary is because of the positive light that many conservation organizations shine on restoration. As O’Riordan contends, “Again, [the International Institute for Conservation] serves only to encourage art conservation and restoration. It does not have any procedures for questioning the validity of a restoration or evaluating the benefits of restorations. This organization depicts conservation in a consistently positive light” (417).


Arguably the most heavily debated topic at the center of this conservation argument is what the intent of the artist was, and whether or not we should attempt to do what we can to return the artwork to that state. When The Syndics was cleaned, it was the belief of the conservators that this was the closest the public could get to seeing the painting as Rembrandt originally intended: unfaded, un-yellowed, and unchipped. However, the question of how we are supposed to understand what Rembrandt’s intentions truly were with this painting remains unanswered, and is often overlooked by conservators. The best attempt that can be made to gain an idea of the artist’s intentions would be to look at the painting in the context of how it was created by documenting the time period, medium, and content, as well as placing it alongside other works by the same artist.

The term Intentional Fallacy refers to the issue of assuming an artist or author’s intent when judging a work of art. William Wimsatt, an English professor at Yale, and Monroe Beardsley, a philosopher of art at Yale among other universities, published a series of essays that argue that when works of art are created, they are immediately separated from the artist and become the property of the public. Under this belief, the authors insist that the artist’s intent or desires with their work cannot be reconstructed by looking at the context of the artwork and comparing it to the other works of the artist, but instead can only be judged by the single work alone. Under this philosophy, any work of art may be tailored to properly fit the desired aesthetic of the restorer without taking into consideration the possible intentions of the original artist (Beardsley).

An issue that arises from observing other artworks to determine the intent of the artist is that many conservators base their work on the work of past conservators, creating almost a game of telephone where adjustments are made based on other, previous adjustments. “Every generation of restorers, in other words, believes it understands the original intent of the artist” (Kimmelman qtd in O’Riordan 411). In a response to these essays by Wimsatt and Beardsley, an article was published in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation where author Steven Dykstra points out that if we were to approach restoration following Wimsatt and Beardsley’s suggestions, yes, the painting would be restored, but at the cost of its history, aesthetics, and recognizability (Dykstra).

Change is Not Always Good

When The Syndics was unveiled to the public in 1932 following its cleaning and treatment, the now unusually brightly colored Rembrandt was not received with open arms. In fact, most people wanted it back the way it used to be- layered with the thick varnish that had yellowed so much over the years. There was even discussion of adding an additional layer of colored varnish to dull the bright whites that had been unearthed, but even that was too far for the conservators (Van Duijn). Suddenly the question was raised: did we go too far? If these bright colors were the original intent of Rebrandt when he finished this painting, why do we see an issue with it now? Hadn't returning the painting to the artist’s original intent been the goal all along?

Once the restoration has begun, it becomes extremely difficult to stop halfway, or reverse the process. Many paintings do not require the level of restoration that they are subjected to, but are simply restored because they look odd in comparison to their brightly colored counterparts, especially in the event of an exhibition where multiple paintings by the same artist are placed on display next to each other. According to O’Riordan, “Authorities at the National Gallery have themselves confessed that a great number of cleanings are done to make the paintings more attractive rather than to restore the original work or illuminate the old master’s technical skill and innovation” (423). Suddenly the original intent of the artist is no longer relevant to the discussion, and the conservators are instead focused on making the art aesthetically pleasing to the public eye. O’Riordan argues that, “Giving the public something ‘pretty’ to look at is a motivating factor for restorations. Large restorations, such as those of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, have been undertaken to make works of art more visually pleasing to a modern audience. Unaware of the processes taking place in the conservation labs, viewers are under the impression that these works have simply been returned to some former grandeur: a grandeur that time has stolen from works of art that has not been restored” (427).

So What Should We Do?

When the layers of paint and varnish were removed from The Syndics, the painting was permanently and irreversibly changed. Never again will the painting show the dark shadows that were famous to Rembrandt. The thought of now attempting to fix the painting again comes with an overwhelming amount of even more issues. So now the question becomes: what do we do now? Now that this piece has been irreparably altered, there is nothing we can do to bring it back, no matter the suggestions of the conservator. This sends us back into the center of the entire argument of restoration—the more we modify the artwork the further it strays from its original state. Attempting to undo damage creates the possibility of even more damage. The artwork enters this state of limbo in which the repair itself has damaged the painting so much that it becomes controversial to consider attempting to restore it more. Instead, it will awkwardly wait until someone with the courage to approach the work from a new perspective steps forward.

Is Change Just a Part of Art?

Society has such a desire to reject change that we often don’t appreciate how change has shaped much of the world we insist on clinging on to. In 2019, the fire that destroyed most of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral was not the cathedral’s first experience with the heat. In fact, the iconic spire that was destroyed two years ago was actually a relatively new addition by the 19th century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc following another, previous fire. He saw an issue with simply constructing an identical replica of the original cathedral, and instead insisted on creating “a combination of the dominant old with the best of the new.” Using this philosophy, he designed and built one of today’s most noteworthy and recognizable architectural features to the cathedral—the spire—nearly six centuries after the building’s original erection (Beck). Going back to the thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus, we are to question the value of an object that is simply a replica of the old object. Many architects called for the reconstruction of the spire following the most recent fire, arguing that ‘Parisians just want it to be the same’; however, there is a loss of identity when approached this way. Sometimes change becomes part of the story of art, whether it be the fading of paint due to neglect, or the addition of paint due to restoration.

Final Thoughts

Whether we would like to admit it or not, many of the hailed masterpieces of the art world are getting older, and many of them have already begun to chip or fade away. In a matter of a few years we could lose some of the greatest art pieces in history to time. In fact, many of the paintings you know well have most likely already had additions made to their surfaces by someone in the past century, or had portions of scraped away to reveal another image underneath in order to stall this slow death. The ethicality of this entire process has been heavily debated for decades due to the finality of the procedure. In reality, there will likely never be a unanimous decision on the subject of restoration. Great artworks will continue to fade away while art historians and conservationists battle over what the art’s fate should be, and many more mistakes will continue to be made by people who believe they have authority over their fate. This leaves us with one final question: is time the greatest enemy of art, or the people who desire to save it?