A small portrait of a man with a blue background sits tucked away in the Dutch Room, positioned directly to the right of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Age 23. A Man in a Fur Coat was painted in 1521 by Albrecht Dürer, a German artist from Nuremberg known not only for his printmaking virtuosity, but also for his highly detailed paintings. Dürer likely created this painting as a commission during his travels to the Low Countries between 1520 and 1521. He often adopted regional techniques, such as here in the pose of the sitter and the choice of support: a standard-sized oak panel.
The Gardner’s Conservation Department took this painting off view in October 2019, so conservators could prepare it for an upcoming trip to Aachen, Germany, where it features in the exhibition, Dürer Was Here: A journey becomes legend at the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum. This exhibit highlights the 500th anniversary of the artist’s important journey to the cultural center Antwerp in the Netherlands.
Any time an artwork is selected to temporarily leave the Palace walls, the Conservation Department gives it a thorough examination before it goes to make sure it’s ready for travel. Archival photographs and notes from previous treatments are studied, and in the case of the Dürer painting, revealed that it was quite damaged underneath the restorations applied during campaigns from the 1930s through the 1970s (often, paintings in collections have had multiple restorations throughout their lives).
During this examination, paintings conservators noted the old varnish and prior restoration efforts were discolored or distracting. In consultation with Curatorial staff, the conservators removed the yellowed varnish and selectively reduced the old restorations, allowing for more of the original painting to be visible.
The abraded surface and missing details of the figure challenged conservators, requiring measured restoration techniques based upon their study of images of similar paintings. Precise retouching recovered much of the sitter without obscuring the artist’s original brushstrokes. Fine details—like the fur lining of his coat or ragged end of the ribbon on his hat—are so characteristic of Albrecht Dürer’s work.
The painting will be on display at the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, along with other Dürer paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, and journals from October 7, 2020 through January 10, 2021. The restored painting will then return home to the Dutch Room for visitors to the Gardner to enjoy.