Art Under Attack: Can These Masterpieces be Restored?

Art Under Attack: Can These Masterpieces be Restored?

Art in museums preserve our cultural heritage because they help inspire creativity, improve learning, and garner appreciation of the arts. While some art may prove controversial, each piece represents an artist’s vision, background, and style – and each piece is meaningful in its own way. So, when a painting is damaged or vandalized, significant efforts are undertaken to restore it back to its original state.  

Over the decades, famous paintings from old masters have been subject to vandalism and accidental damage. From poles, to chemical formulas, to elbows, paintings have been destroyed or damaged by a variety of objects. While one may think the universal rule, “don’t touch the art” applies to all artwork, each year a handful of individuals choose to, or accidentally, damage art. So, we’ve picked four of the most scandalous stories of artwork being harmed – you won’t believe what has happened to some pieces! 

Before we begin, vandalism of art refers to when an artwork is purposely damaged. The piece is typically held in public settings, such as museums or galleries. Following the act, the piece usually remains in those settings and is not removed from the museum by the vandalizer. This differentiates vandalism from art theft or the “damaging of art”. The act of damaging art must occur through accidental man-made, or natural, actions or through a natural degradation process.


Blame it on the Booze

In May of 2018, a drunken man attacked one of Russia’s most famous paintings, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan by Ilya Repin, with a security pole. The painting depicts the Czar Ivan the Terrible cradling his dying son just after murdering him. The events leading to the death, as well as the painting, remains a controversial topic in Russia; many believe it depicts a skewed, untrue view of history. Another version of the title of the painting is “Ivan the Terrible Killing his Son”. This title causes additional controversy among Russians as the piece does not depict the act itself, but rather the father in a state of remorse. 

Photo Source: The Guardian 


Russian authorities quickly identified the man responsible for last year’s act of vandalism, where he later confessed to the crime and faulted it to consuming 100mg of vodka. However, it turns out the suspect was potentially fueled by more than just vodka as cameras captured him shouting how Ivan the Terrible did not kill his son.   

The thick glass protecting the painting was badly smashed and the canvas was torn in three places. The frame was also damaged, however, that is said to be a “happy coincidence”. The museum has put together a special commission of experts to plan and oversee the restoration of the painting, which will likely take several years.  


The $40 Million Dollar Elbow

Le Rêve, by Picasso, represents the artist’s mistress and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. In 1926, Picasso approached Marie-Thérèse saying, “Hello, miss. You have a very interesting face. I would love to make you a portrait. I’m sure we’re going to do great things together, you and I.” Marie-Thérèse soon became the main model for Picasso’s cubist and neo-classical paintings.  

Photo Source: NPR  


In this colourful painting, Marie-Thérèse is resting in an armchair during an afternoon in mid-January. Forms of abstraction and anatomy are used throughout the painting to create a mood of sensuality. It was at this time in his career that Picasso was setting new grounds and defining new ways to create art. 

In 2001, Casino owner Steve Wynn purchased the painting for $60 million and in 2006 decided to sell the piece for $139 million to the collector Steven A. Cohen. At the time, this marked the highest ever price for a work of art. Days before the official exchange, Wynn decided to invite a few friends of his to view the painting in person and up-close. Suffering from an eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, Wynn backed up and his right elbow hit the picture, puncturing a six-inch hole in the piece. The painting was restored about 8 weeks later, at a cost of $90,000, with no visible sign of damage. Wynn is now considered to have a “40-million-dollar elbow” after the sale fell through and the painting was re-valued at $85 million. Lucky for Wynn, Cohen later purchase the piece in 2013 for a record-breaking $155 million.   


 “Please Don’t Punch the Monet”

Painted in 1874, Argenteuil Basin with a Single Sailboat is an autumn scene of the basin at Argenteuil, a town on the outskirts of Paris. From 1871 – 1878, Monet used a boat as a floating studio to paint scenes of the River Seine and its banks.  

Photo source: Christie’s 


In June 2012, a man punched straight through the canvas causing what seemed to be an irreparable hole. The punch resulted in a tear of over 1 foot long, covering a surface area of nearly one quarter the length of the painting. “It was huge damage, shocking damage,” said National Gallery of Ireland director Sean Rainbird, “This project to restore and conserve one of the gallery’s most popular Impressionist works of art is a testament to the outstanding expertise and dedication of our professional team of conservators.” 

While the recovery of the Monet took place the criminal served a five-year sentence for his crime.  After an 18-month intensive restoration process, the piece presents itself is in excellent condition; however, it will never look the exact same as it once did. Now protected by a glass casing, conservators and museum staff hope the painting will remain safe. 


Once Wasn’t Enough

Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn is a national treasure to the Dutch, as well as one of the world’s most famous paintings. Depicting the company of Captain Frans Banning and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytrnburgh, surrounded by his men, the piece showcases Rembrandt’s impressive ability to use light and shade. The painting is a highlight of the artist’s career, during which he painted over 600 paintings, and is a celebrated example of the artistic style, “chiaroscuro”, Italian for “light-dark”. This style plays with shadows to create textures and adds the impact of three dimension. When Rembrandt painted Night Watch, he was one of the most famous artists in a circle including Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. Today, it hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.


In 1990, a mentally ill man, who had a history of destroying works of art, entered the museum and threw acid on the piece. Luckily, security guards were able to dilute the acid on the painting with water, preventing significant damage. Prior to this event, the piece was slashed with a bread knife, with the culprit claiming he did it for “the Lord.” The piece was restored after both attempts; however, the restoration is in need of an update. A white haze has begun to appear in areas surrounding the knife damage.

The piece is Rembrandt’s most ambitious work.Night Watch is almost 4m tall and 4.5m wide (12.5 x 15 ft) - and weighs a whopping 337kg (743lb). Rijksmuseum has decided to conduct the restoration at the museum; however, they have decided to include an audience. As part of the museum’s efforts to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, the restoration will take place in a state-of-the-art glass chamber for visitors to observe the whole process. The restoration project went underway on July 8 and is live-streaming for anyone to see across the world.


What Can We Do? 

Since the emergence of public galleries in the 17th century, museums have amassed huge collections of art to show for cultural appreciation. Unfortunately, a risk of vandalism is imposed when pieces are hung on gallery walls.  Despite significant security efforts made by museum and gallery staff, these sacrilegious acts still occur more frequently than one would imagine. Not only does it endanger our cultural heritage, but it proves to be extremely costly and time-consuming. One step usually taken to ensure the security of artworks is the use of insurance. While this does not prevent the damage of the works itself, it ensures the piece can be restored as closely as possible to the paintings original condition.

Some museums, such as The National Gallery of Canada and The Mauritshuis in The Hague, have looked to Arius Technology to produce digital files of specific paintings. This way, if a painting were ever be damaged, museums could look to the files when restoring and repairing the damage. With digital snapshots of artwork, which capture the exact colour and geometry of the surface, we can help safeguard the future of art, even in the face of damage or future degradation.



Featured Image credit from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 

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