From the Archives: Conservation of Delaunay’s "La Poétesse"

From the University of Iowa Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 1977

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In 1974, The University of Iowa Museum of Art joined the Intermuseum Conservation Association, an alliance of seventeen museums which sponsors the Intermuseum Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio.  Among the first services rendered by the Laboratory was the conservation treatment of Robert Delaunay’s La Poétesse (also known as Fillette). The painting was to be prepared for loan to an important Delaunay exhibition at the Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris and at the Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden during 1976.

La Poétesse was completed by 1907 when Delaunay was twenty-two.  It was first exhibited at his premiere one-man show of forty-one paintings at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris, February 28-March 13, 1912.  Apparently, it was not shown again publicly until 1949 at the Galerie Marcel Evrard in Lille, eight years after Delaunay’s death (1941).  La Poétesse was purchased from a Paris gallery in 1959 by Owen and Leone Elliott of Cedar Rapids, who donated it to The University of Iowa Museum of Art in 1968.

Upon receiving the painting at the Laboratory, a thorough examination was made before beginning treatment (Figure 1). During the examination a conscious effort was made to consider both the artist’s technique and his original intent. Statements by the artist as well as related technical information found in the research material of various scholars were helpful in determining which methods of conservation would maintain the integrity of the painting.

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Upon initial examination, the painting was found to be on linen canvas measuring 74 cm x 47.9 cm, which was stretched on a wooden strainer that could not be expanded because of fixed corner joins.  The inability of the non-expanding wooden strainer to take up the unavoidable slackness of the canvas caused by repeated changes in relative humidity led to distortions of the surface plane as evidenced in the detail of the raking-light photograph (Figure 2).  Cracking of the ground and paint layers usually results when a support cannot keep the canvas surface taut.

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The front surface of the canvas appeared to have been prepared by the artist (rather than commercially) with a ground material of zinc white pigment in an oil medium. Zinc white pigment is reported to have “a tendency to dry brittle and to crack,”1 explaining the fragile condition of the ground layer. Three small losses of the ground layer had exposed small areas of the canvas surface.

The image of La Poétesse was created by a blackline underdrawing on the white ground, shown distinctly in an infrared photograph (Figure 3), and by individual strokes of paint applied directly to the white ground, leaving much of the ground exposed. While the ground, the drawing, and the paint strokes contribute to the overall image, each can be distinguished by the order of its physical application.

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Minute losses of the paint layer existed throughout the surface area, apparently due to the flexing of the slack canvas. The dark green brush strokes below the figure’s left hand, and the red brush strokes forming elements on the plate appeared to have been more prone than other colors or strokes to cracking and loss.

There had been a severe loss of both ground and paint layers in a strip ranging in height from 1 to 4 cm across the bottom edge of the painting. This loss, which was due to water damage, had been repaired with a white fibrous filling material.

The signature in the lower right corner read “Delaunay, R.”  Because the signature appears in the water damaged area, the possibility exists that the artist may have originally signed the painting “Delaunay, Robert.”  Fragmented strokes of the signature remaining after the “R” could be interpreted as an “o,” followed by the back spine of a “b,” and, after some space, the upper portion of a crossed “t.”  This evidence would suggest the full spelling of “Robert.”  However, the “Catalogue de l’Oeuvre de Robert Delaunay” by Guy Habasque,2 and the 1976 Paris exhibition catalogue by Michel Hoog3 indicate that Delaunay usually signed his first name before his last, followed by an abbreviated date at the time this painting was completed. Perhaps the date was also lost by the water damage.

Further examination of the image surface of the painting revealed the whole to be covered with an accumulation of dirt and grime. The paint and ground surface were matte and very porous. Since the paining had apparently never received a protective varnish, the dirt and grime were well interlocked with the surface. The fact that the paining was left unvarnished would indicate that either circumstances did not permit the artist to apply a varnish layer, or that the matte surface was part of the artist’s original intent. An oil painting left unprotected by a varnish usually shows a tendency to become increasingly matte with age, perhaps more so than originally intended by the artist.

The photograph of the reverse of the painting (Figure 4), records the wooden strainer on which were found four intact exhibition labels. On the top half of the reverse of the canvas, there was an exhibition label and the inscription “80, 111 placé” written in two different materials, plus illegible ink stamps. Also evident was a piece of cloth adhered to the bottom edge of the painting at some previous date in an attempt to repair the water damaged area.

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The first stage of conservation treatment was to remove as much of the surface grime from the image as possible. This was done by applying various cleaning agents in dilute aqueous solutions to small areas of the surface with cotton swabs. Because the grime was well interlocked into the ground and paint layers, it could not be entirely removed with safety. Some improvement was achieved, especially in the figure’s forearm, an area consisting largely of exposed zinc ground and black line underdrawing, as indicated in the detail of the photograph taken during treatment (Figure 5).

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After the removal of as much surface grime as was safely possible, the painting was removed from its original stretcher and secured with aluminum push pins to a wooden temporary strainer whose inside dimensions were that of the painted surface.  This was done to facilitate handling during treatment. Even though the wooden stretcher from which the painting had been removed was probably the original one used by Delaunay, it was decided that it should be replaced with one of better design in order to preserve the work of art. The labels on the original stretcher were removed, and together with the label from the reverse surface of the canvas were returned to the Museum for future reference.

Before removing the white fibrous filling material across the bottom edge of the painting, it was determined that the filling over the water damaged area was easily soluble in water. However, where the filling had contact with the original paint, which was in a weakened condition, it was necessary to remove it carefully with a scalpel. This was done under a sterobinocular microscope. In order to remove the adhered cloth and label from the reverse side of the canvas, the painting was turned face down with a support against the paint surface. The dirt on the reverse side of the canvas was carefully removed with a fiberglass brush, and irregularities in the linen threads were lightly sanded to prepare the painting to receive the additional support of a lining.

An original canvas weakened by age, as was La Poétesse, is usually given additional support by adhering a new piece of linen to the reverse of the painting. Special consideration was necessary with this painting in order to preserve the inscriptions on the reverse for future reference. This was accomplished by providing for transparency in the lining support. A woven fiberglass cloth was selected rather than a new piece of linen.

Another important consideration in the lining of this painting was the necessity of preserving the matte surface of the painted image. Conservators have a choice of adhesives with which to bond a lining support to an original canvas.  In the case of La Poétesse, the matte surface of the painting excluded the use of a lining adhesive which might penetrate the ground and paint layers. Penetration of these layers would cause a change in the tonality of certain colors, such as the lighter purple strokes of cobalt violet in the upper righthand corner which would darken instantly if saturated with a solvent or adhesive. Although the cobalt violet strokes are probably lighter and more matte than when      they had been applied by Delaunay, it was felt preferable to maintain their present condition. Therefore, a polyvinyl acetate “Hot Melt” adhesive, which would not penetrate the structure but would merely secure the tops of the canvas threads to the fiberglass lining support, was used. Consolidation of cracked, loose paint and ground on the front surface of the canvas was accomplished by applying locally a synthetic resin in solvent directly to the surface as an adhesive.

When the lining process was completed, the fiberglass lining supporting the painting was mounted on a custom-made I.C.A. spring stretcher. The corners of the stretcher were designed so as to expand easily to take up any slack in the lined painting without jarring or vibration.

A new filling was applied to the water-damaged bottom edge with special care so as not to cover any of the original paint or ground layers. In-painting or compensation for lost brush strokes was completed in stable pigments ground in a non-yellowing, synthetic, resin medium. In consultation with Jan Muhlert, Museum Director, it was decided to resolve only the strokes of paint whose damage or loss was clearly visible.  The same approach was used with the signature, in that only the losses from the legible letters were in-painted, resulting in the signature of “Delaunay, R.”  The applied filling which was still exposed was then toned to match the original ground in the adjacent areas (Figure 6).

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An important final decision to be made was how to protect the surface of the painting. In the case of La Poétesse, it seemed that the matte surface of the painting was the result of a conscious choice by the artist.  It was not unusual for Delaunay to finish his painting with a matte surface, often by using a wax or encaustic painting medium. Although there is no evidence of a wax medium in La Poétesse, a revealing statement by Delaunay suggests that leaving a surface unvarnished was an alternate method of creating a matte surface.  “Oil painting, just left alone, would blend beautifully after twenty years. After two years -- even ten years -- it is dead. Then, after twenty years, life begins to come into it if no varnish has been applied.”4 Whether he would have approved the results of seventy years of aging was impossible to determine. In view of the artist’s original intention, it was decided to protect the matte surface of the painting.

Experience has indicated that unvarnished painting of sufficient age can accept carefully introduced light sprays of synthetic resin as a protective layer for the surface without altering the tonality or any matte/gloss relationships.  La Poétesse received a light spray of acrylic resin in solution as a means of preventing further dust and dirt from being caught in the cracks and on the surface. As a further means of protection, the painting was mounted in its frame behind Plexiglas before loan to the exhibition. Tri-lingual requests for careful handling were applied to the reverse of the painting’s protective backing boards. The final efforts of the Laboratory included construction of a special crate to minimize the inevitable stress of an overseas loan.

Even the most professionally-minded and ethically-oriented conservator may unwittingly disturb factors of the artist’s original intent. Conservators, as well as historians and connoisseurs, must be aware of the potential of altering an artistic intention, whether it is traditional or untraditional, by conservation techniques.  It is impossible for the professional conservator to be totally aware of every artist’s motives.  Careful examination of the object, thorough research into artist’s methods of working, statements by the artist, and technical information in related scholarly research must all be considered in order to achieve the accurate preservation of an original artistic statement.

David C. Goist 


Intermuseum Laboratory


David Goist received his MA in art history from the University of Iowa in 1972 and served as a graduate assistant with the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

References 1Gettens and Stout, Painting Materials, A Short Encyclopaedia (New York: Dover, 1966), p. 177.2Guy Habasque, “Catalogue de l’Oeuvre” in Robert Delaunay, Du Cubisme a l’art abstract, edited by Pierre Francastel (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1957), p. 2503Michel Hoog, Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), exhibition catalogue from Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris (May 25-August 30, 1976), p. 39.4George L.K. Morris, “Dialoguees with Delaunay,” Art News, Vol. 54, No. 9 (1955), p. 65.

Robert Delaunay French, 1885–1941

La Poétesse or Fillette [The Poetess or Little Girl]

, 1906–1907
Oil on canvas, 37 x 27 11/16 in.
Gift of Owen and Leone Elliott, 1968.21a