The Madonna of the Yarnwinder has undergone a number of conservation changes and alterations in the past one hundred odd years.
Commonly, articles and restoration reports provide valuable information on knowing the conservation history of paintings. In the case of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, this information is difficult to find or no longer exists. Documents show that around 1910 the painting underwent the radical procedure of a transfer from its original panel to a canvas support. Although no longer considered an agreeable option, at the time it was considered a way to give the painting a more stable support.
Although documents can describe what happened to a painting, they cannot show us what it looked like. Below is a set of visual reproductions taken over the last century. In creating a timeline of visual reproductions, and pairing them with recorded documents, remarkable changes in the history of this painting have been revealed.
Notable features to remember are the vertical wood panel cracks around the bottom centre, the drapery on the Christ’s lap, the veil around the Madonna’s neck and the fingers on her left hand as she grasps her Child.
The Madonna´s hair is slightly fuller with an extra strand of curls falling along the inside to her right and the outside of her left side. Also, the pupils of the eyes of both figures appear more clearly defined and indications of a reflection can be seen, especially in the Madonna’s right eye.
The painting appeared in the Burlington Fine Arts Club exhibition and catalogue on the Milanese school of paintings.
It was exhibited alongside another version of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo and his studio then, and still, owned by the Duke of Buccleuch.
This can be seen as the beginning of more than a hundred years of comparisons between the two paintings.
Emil Möller, the eminent art historian, described seeing it in its new state:
“When I saw it in 1911 (in Paris) at Wildenstein’s, it had been relined, cleaned, restored and altered in several details. The loin cloth had been removed, the restored two fingers of the Madonna’s left hand had been cleaned off, the folds smoothed out, the veil on the bosom altered, and the piece of rock under the Child’s foot made visible. The total impression was pleasant but overtrim.”
It shows that the painting has undergone some kind of conservation work. This can be seen most notably in the further removal of the veil around the Madonna’s neck, and the removal of the Christ’s genitals.
The scholar Wilhelm Suida had taken part in the technical examination of the painting, then a relatively new approach to the study of paintings. X-ray and ultraviolet light examinations revealed pentimenti (changes in the underdrawing, the early stage of the composition) and other alterations to the painting.
He used this information to draw conclusions about the painting’s attribution, believing it to be the collaborative work of Leonardo and one of his pupils.
A letter from Robert Reford states that damage had occurred to the painting due to “dampness and bad packing by the Exhibition Committee” which required conservation work to restore.
This undated photograph, supplied by the Reford family, could have been taken following this work.
The most significant changes one can detect appear in the right hand of the Madonna, which is more clearly defined, her wrist, which is visible, and her sleeve, which is also clearly depicted.
This image was taken by a high definition scanner, which recorded a life-sized reproduction of the painting. This makes a one to one comparison with the original painting extremely accurate. It also allows for a direct comparison between this image and other examination images taken of the painting, as demonstrated in the Discover section of this site.
This image shows clear indications of restoration work discoloured by age. This is apparent in areas around of the Christ’s cheek as well as his hip and leg, and in the areas where the panel cracks had first appeared.
The Madonna’s drapery also shows clear signs of discolouration in the pigment.