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Vandalism and Art

Vandalism and the Rijksmuseum: three vandalized paintings restored by Luitsen Kuiper in the nineteen seventies

Esther van Duijn

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  • 1 For this presentation information was used from the conservation files from the Rijksmuseum Amsterd (...)

1In the past, the Rijksmuseum collection has recurrently been a victim of vandalism. Notable examples are a knife attack on Rembrandt’s Night Watch in January 1911 and an axe attack on the fragment of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman in February 1931. However, this presentation focusses on three cases from the 1970s. In the Netherlands conservation history, this decade marks the beginning of the end of the wax-resin lining, also known as the “Dutch method”, a method that was previously accepted for many decades without discussion [Villers 2004]. At the same time there was a growing awareness, amongst restorers as well as amongst other specialists, of the various approaches to retouching a painting. This presentation will discuss three paintings, ravaged by different acts of vandalism in 1971, 1975 and 1978. All paintings were treated by Luitsen Kuiper (1936-1989), who had started his career as chief restorer in the Rijksmuseum in 1970.1

2On 23 September 1971, a 21-year old idealist thief stole Vermeer’s Love Letter (c. 1669), which hung on loan in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. For easy transportation underneath his sweater, the thief roughly cut the painting on canvas from its stretcher, folded it once and tucked it in his trousers. He hid it in a pillowcase in the hotel where he stayed. Through anonymous letters and contact with the press, he demanded 200 million Belgian francs for refugees in Pakistan. When the painting was recovered two weeks after the theft, it was badly damaged.

Fig. 1 The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer as it arrived at the museum after recovery from the thief

Fig. 1 The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer as it arrived at the museum after recovery from the thief

On the left side the stretcher from which the canvas was cut off.

Photo © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

  • 2 Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 20, 3 (1972).

3The case received a lot of international attention. Remarkably, many supported the cause of the thief, who called himself Tijl van Limburg and was seen as a modern Robin Hood. Possibly as a result of this sympathy, several experts – among them artists, sociologists and art historians – advocated that the painting should not be restored, but left as historical document. However, although this possibility was discussed in the museum, it seems never to have been seriously considered. The same is true for alternative forms of retouching such as a neutral retouche or some form of tratteggio, as was suggested by one art historian. Rijksmuseum director Arthur van Schendel (1910-1979) proposed to have the treatment of the painting accompanied by an international advisory committee of conservator-restorers, museum directors and scientists. During his career Van Schendel had always held a special interest in conservation and technical research. He was for example one of the founders of both ICOM - Care of Paintings and the International Institute for Conservation (IIC). The advisory committee was an important instrument in the validation of the treatment which consisted – very bluntly – of a (new) wax-resin lining and an integral or invisible retouching of the extensive paint losses. When the painting was presented to the audience one year after the theft, on 28 September 1972, it was accompanied by an informative exhibition and a dedicated issue of the Rijksmuseum Bulletin.2 This appears to have silenced all critics, because no further controversy ensued.

Fig. 2 Luitsen Kuiper

Fig. 2 Luitsen Kuiper

Chief restorer Luitsen Kuiper working on the Love Letter.

Photo © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

4Disaster struck again a few years later: on Sunday 14 September 1975 the Night Watch was attacked with a dinner knife in the Rijksmuseum by a mentally disturbed teacher. No less than thirteen gashes went deep into the paint structure, several going through both the original canvas and the lining canvas. Again international attention was overwhelming, although this time there were no sympathizers on behalf of the vandal. Perhaps this was the reason behind the decision not to bring together an advisory committee. However, this omission may also have resulted from the fact that Van Schendel had retired, only a few months before the attack. His successor, Simon Levie (1925-2016), was less deeply involved in the field of conservation. The treatment of the painting following the attack was closely observed, not only by press and specialists from the field, but also by the public.

Fig. 3 Night Watch shortly after the attack

Fig. 3 Night Watch shortly after the attack

Retired Rijksmuseum director Arthur van Schendel (left) and Luitsen Kuiper (right) examining Rembrandt’s Night Watch shortly after the attack.

Photo by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo © National Archive.

5The large size of the painting did not allow for a treatment in the conservation studio on the top floor of the building, and as s result it was treated in the Gallery of Honour in a temporary room. Through large windows, the public could watch the progression of the treatment during the hours that the conservator-restorers were not actively working, so as not to disturb them. Additionally, the audience was informed on various aspects of the painting and its treatment in a small exhibition in the adjacent room.

  • 3 Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 24, 1/2 (1976).
  • 4 Conference on comparative lining techniques, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 23–25 April 1974.
  • 5 NRC Handelsblad, 20-09-1975.

6Other tools the Rijksmuseum employed to inform the public were two documentaries and a dedicated Rijksmuseum Bulletin.3 All this publicity seems to have worked well: apart from one exception the restoration was accepted without fail as very successful both by the larger public and by specialists in the field. The treatment itself can be described as traditional. Structurally the painting was given a wax-resin lining, while on the front side the yellow varnish layers and retouches were mostly removed and replaced by new ones. With new retouchings of (leached out) oil paint and varnish layers of dammar in turpentine oil, Kuiper stayed well within the realm of traditional conservation materials. Although the Greenwich conference on comparative lining techniques had taken place a year earlier, its impact had not yet fully manifested, at least not in the Rijksmuseum.4 In a newspaper interview, two colleagues from the “Centraal Laboratorium voor onderzoek van voorwerpen van kunst en wetenschap” suggested that there were alternatives to wax-resin lining available, but this seems not to have been a serious consideration for Kuiper. 5

7Discussions on alternatives to wax-resin lining treatment became more fierce after the consecutive attacks – two weeks after each other – on two Van Gogh paintings by an angry artist: La Berceuse (1889) in the Stedelijk Museum and Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat (1887) in the Van Gogh Museum were both slashed crosswise with a sharp knife.

Fig. 4 Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat after the attack

Fig. 4 Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat after the attack

Photo in raking light.

Photo © Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam.

8Although the treatment of La Berceuse was not carried out by Kuiper, and is therefore not part of this presentation, discussion on the application of a new wax-resin lining in the conservation files of the Stedelijk Museum read very similarly to those on the Self Portrait. That Self Portrait with grey felt hat was treated by Kuiper in the Rijksmuseum was a result of the fact that Rijksmuseum director Levie was also director of the Van Gogh Museum; also the museum did not have its own conservation studio yet. Although no international committee was set up, a small group of specialists was brought together to advise on the treatment. Art historian Ernst van der Wetering was the only one to question the necessity of a wax-resin lining, but did this only after the meeting. He wrote a lengthy well-informed report on the subject, which was send around to the people involved. Kuiper answered it with a report of his own, in which he argued his case intelligently and with careful deliberation; he remained true to the wax-resin lining. He also convinced the other committee members for a wax-resin lining, which was ultimately carried out. Van der Weteringen’s critique however, does mark the inevitable decline of the method in the years after.

9Although this presentation only grazes the surface of three vandalism cases that – for various reasons – resulted in complex conservation treatments, I hope to have shown some of the aspects that have fascinated me personally as I went through the sources. They also show how important it is how a museum deals with the aftermath of these acts of vandalism on art objects; openness about the conservation treatment seems essential to ensure a positive reception of the work.

10Van Duijn, E. and J.P. Filedt Kok. 2016. The Art of Conservation III: The Restorations of Rembrandt’s “Night watch”. The Burlington Magazine 158 (1355): 117–128.

11Villers, C. (ed.). 2003. Lining Paintings: Papers from the Greenwich Conference on Comparative Lining Techniques, London.

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Notes

1 For this presentation information was used from the conservation files from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum, as well as the following archival sources: Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem (NHA), archive no. 481 Rijksmuseum en rechtsvoorgangers te Amsterdam 1946-1995, inv. nos. 2790, 2791 and 2865. On the conservation history of the Night Watch the author published in 2016: Van Duijn and Filedt Kok 2016.

2 Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 20, 3 (1972).

3 Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 24, 1/2 (1976).

4 Conference on comparative lining techniques, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 23–25 April 1974.

5 NRC Handelsblad, 20-09-1975.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 The Love Letter by Johannes Vermeer as it arrived at the museum after recovery from the thief
Caption On the left side the stretcher from which the canvas was cut off.
Credits Photo © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5573/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 388k
Title Fig. 2 Luitsen Kuiper
Caption Chief restorer Luitsen Kuiper working on the Love Letter.
Credits Photo © Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5573/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 252k
Title Fig. 3 Night Watch shortly after the attack
Caption Retired Rijksmuseum director Arthur van Schendel (left) and Luitsen Kuiper (right) examining Rembrandt’s Night Watch shortly after the attack.
Credits Photo by Rob Bogaerts / Anefo © National Archive.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5573/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 420k
Title Fig. 4 Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat after the attack
Caption Photo in raking light.
Credits Photo © Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5573/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 475k
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References

Electronic reference

Esther van Duijn, « Vandalism and the Rijksmuseum: three vandalized paintings restored by Luitsen Kuiper in the nineteen seventies  », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 04 December 2018, connection on 25 May 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5573

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About the author

Esther van Duijn

Esther van Duijn is currently working on a three-year research project studying the conservation history of the painting’s collection of the Rijksmuseum. This project is financed by the Luca Fund. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam e.van.duijn@rijksmuseum.nl

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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