by Serena Urry, Chief Conservator
This visitor favorite, Girl Eating Porridge, by French artist Adolphe William Bouguereau (1825–1905), was acquired by the museum in 1884, a mere ten years after the artist painted it. The work provides an unusual case in which our conservators know that its current state is entirely the result of being treated here at the museum.
The evidence suggests that during the 140 years since the painting entered our collection, it was cleaned off more than once, but unevenly. The light passages, such as the girl’s face and shirt, were cleaned thoroughly of accumulated grime, but darker areas such as the background, were not.
After each surface-clean (a conservation term meaning removal of only grime from atop varnish layers), another coat of natural resin varnish was applied to the painting. Natural resin varnishes are prone to discolor over time, and the uneven grime had also significantly affected the color balance.
We recently cleaned the painting, removing all the grime and the discolored varnishes present. And while the difference between the painting before cleaning, on the left, and after cleaning, on the right, is not as highly dramatic as some before-and-after conservation images, details in the background have become much clearer. Also, note that the girl’s face remains a little grimy. It is grime painted on by the artist!