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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Restoration Pulls 'Danae' Out of Her Acid Bath

ST. PETERSBURG -- Until it was irreversibly damaged by a vandal in the summer of 1985, Rembrandt's "Danae" was by common consent one of the most beautiful of all European paintings. Though at first believed to have been damaged beyond any hope of recovery, it is to go back on view in the Hermitage here on Oct. 13 after 12 years of close and often perilous work on its restoration.

The "Danae" had always engendered a particular affection. The story of how Zeus came to Danae in the form of a shower of gold was a longtime favorite with painters -- Titian, among others -- but Rembrandt gave it a spin all his own.

His Danae was not a Greek princess but a beautiful young Dutch woman of Rembrandt's own day. (No one ever forgot the gesture with which she threw off the covers to welcome her unexpected but irresistible visitor.) Ever since it was bought in 1772 by Catherine the Great of Russia from the Crozat collection in Paris, the "Danae" had stood out as one of the great treasures of the Hermitage.

But on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1985, the "Danae" was attacked by a man who has been variously described as either "a deviant," a madman or an embittered citizen of one Baltic state or another. His identity has never been disclosed.

He lunged at the painting with a knife thrust in the region of Danae's lower belly. Apparently dissatisfied with the result, he poured on what is estimated to have been a liter of sulfuric acid. This formed a dark, bubbling, foul-smelling mass that trickled down to the bottom of the frame and from there onto the floor.

At the time, the museum's director was away in the country, as were many of his staff. On weekends, no member of the paintings restoration department was on duty. Nor was there anyone in the museum who could identify the acid, which was clearly doing great damage as it ate its way down the canvas.

After an hour, two professors from the Institute of Technology came over and recommended that the picture be kept upright and, since no pumps or sprays were available, that small amounts of water be poured, thrown or, if necessary, spat on the damaged areas. This advice has sometimes been contested, on the grounds that the water may not so much have washed away the acid as caused it to spread.

In any case, the damage was a terrifying sight.

It took a year to inspect the canvas, centimeter by centimeter, under a microscope. Meanwhile, rumors circulated. The Central Committee of the Communist Party was pressing for results. (The committee advised, in effect, just to paint it over and get it back, museum officials said.) This pressure was resisted.

The laborious course that was eventually followed was described to two American visitors by the restorer in charge, Yevgeny Gerasimov, a staff member of the Hermitage for 40 years. "The logic of restoration takes its own course," he said. "Anything could have happened during these last 12 years. All work of this sort is immensely difficult and dangerous."

Gerasimov said the staff's methods included the use of "sturgeon glue melted with honey." That had been a traditional remedy for generations at the Hermitage, in the heartland of caviar.

Officials also looked abroad. "In Germany, damage of this sort had recently been done to a Rembrandt from the museum in Kassel," Gerasimov said, "and so they have had a lot of experience. We went to Munich to see how they had handled the problem, and they were very helpful to us."

Back home, in what was then the Soviet Union, a full-size copy of the "Danae" that had been made early in the 19th century was found in an obscure provincial museum. This was offered as a loan and gratefully accepted. Though in many ways more like a neoclassical painting than a Rembrandt, the copy served as an invaluable reminder and approximate map of the original and is still in the restoration studio.

The fundamental question, Gerasimov said, was: "How far should the picture be restored? When was it time to call a halt?"

Repainting would, in effect, have made a counterfeit Rembrandt, Gerasimov said. The restorers instead opted to fill in and retouch -- making small transitions from one area to another. "All the damaged areas had to be toned in, or touched in, to make a ground on which damaged areas could, if possible, be restored," he said.

Delicate problems arose. "What material should be used? Once it was used, would it be hard to take it out, if necessary? How would it change with age?"

Finally there was the problem of what to do in areas where none of the original painting survived. The restorers carefully worked their way from one inch to the next using their judgment and experience to do something that was not copying but rather suggesting, Gerasimov said. "We tried with Danae's arm, jewels, hands and pillow. We left the original paint as it was, and made a mosaic of the badly damaged areas, partly retouching and partly making new.

"But fundamentally there is no 'reconstruction' and no repainting. There are the damaged parts, and there are the undamaged parts. We were very, very careful with the original pigments. Any repainting means dissonance."

In the resulting painting, "some parts are 100 percent Rembrandt, some are 50 percent Rembrandt, and some had to be redone," Gerasimov said. "The left thigh is slightly restored. The right arm was 90 percent damaged but is now back to normal. The pearls were intact, but the jewels needed work. What the visitor sees is not 'the original,' and we would never put it forward as such. But the spirit of Rembrandt is intact."

Gerasimov said the restorers had to use their judgment about how far to carry out their work. "There are always people who want a complete reconstruction," he said. "But, finally, the work itself dictates how it should be. You have to look, think and feel -- and it will tell you what to do. "We had to learn when to stop."

The painting had already undergone alterations centuries ago. "X-rays show extensive and radical pentimenti by Rembrandt himself," Gerasimov said. "The dimensions, even, were changed. So were the right hand and Danae's face."

A visitor to the Hermitage studio was Hubert von Sonnenburg, formerly head of a great museum in Munich, the Alte Pinakothek, and now head of the restoration of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He said in a recent interview that the Hermitage had "an ancient and honorable tradition by which all restorers had to learn to paint and to draw" at St. Petersburg's Academy of the Arts.

"This means that they are likely to have the special skills needed for the delicate in-filling of damaged areas," he said.

Von Sonnenburg believes that distance is indispensable when a damaged painting is reintroduced. "If people are allowed to get close to a once-damaged painting, they will concentrate on the damage," he said. "That is what they will remember most.

"But if they are kept at a distance of 12 or 15 feet, they can focus on what really matters -- the overall poetic effect of a great masterpiece that has survived a terrible ordeal. That painting may not be what it once was, or how we remember it, but the spirit of the artist will still be there. And that is what matters."