“Someone once said to me the best acquisitions a museum can make are from its own storerooms,” Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers said on a recent afternoon.
By that, Rogers was referring to a 17th-century painting newly installed in the MFA’s renovated Koch Gallery. Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck painted the portrait, “Isabella, Lady de La Warr,” in 1638 during a stay in England. What’s intriguing is that until recently, the painting was packed away and in questionable condition. It was certainly an unlikely candidate to be pulled from storage and put on the wall.
Not that “Isabella” was a secret. Rogers remembers looking at it not long after he took over as the MFA’s director in 1994. He was not encouraged. The painting was discolored from varnishes that had been applied to protect its surface and, in other spots, was missing paint or had been retouched with paint that didn’t match.
“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t know if it can be revived,’ ’’ said Rogers.
He wasn’t alone. In February 2011, a technical examination of the painting highlighted its issues. “While the painting would certainly benefit by removing the dark, discolored varnish and old, mismatched retouching, the degree of abrasion and loss is severe and may offset any gain made,” a report read in part.
“May” is the key word. Because the Van Dyck, after undergoing almost a year of restoration under the hand of MFA paintings conservator Rhona MacBeth, now hangs in a prominent spot in one of the museum’s most visited galleries.
“I don’t think there are many works of this quality in storage,” said Ronni Baer, MFA senior curator of paintings, standing in the gallery on a recent afternoon. “This is a very special thing.”
“Isabella” depicts an elegant woman standing with one hand pointing, the other softly gripping her shimmering gown. She stares straight at the viewer, without a hint of shyness. She was the wife of Lord Henry, who served as a diplomat and treasurer of one of Van Dyck’s most famous subjects, England’s King Charles I.
Though largely forgotten for years, there was a time, more than a half century ago, that the painting was considered one of the most important at the museum.
Mrs. Frederick T. Bradbury, an MFA donor, purchased the painting in 1930 from a London dealer for $121,440. That’s nearly $1.7 million in today’s money.
The work went on view in the MFA’s Hamilton Palace period room and, in 1944, was among 21 pieces selected for a special exhibit at Williams College highlighting the museum’s most important paintings.
Baer, who stops short of overplaying the significance of the work, understands why it sold for so much back in 1930. These paintings depicting aristocratic life were popular. US industrialist Henry Clay Frick, she notes, owned three full-length Van Dyck portraits by 1918. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst bought one in 1928.
“What it does so well is represent the taste for aristocratic portraiture that evidently appealed to American collectors in the first few decades of the 20th century,” said Baer.
But in the 1980s, the Van Dyck went into storage. It wasn’t until Rogers took over as the MFA’s director that anybody gave serious thought to bringing it back out.
“Clearly, if Malcolm’s interested in a project, it gives it a boost,” said MacBeth. “Usually for us there are all sorts of projects we’d like to do. But it takes a project to really focus the attention on a particular painting.”
A grant allowed the MFA, for 18 months leading up to the end of 2011, to study every 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting in its collection. And as soon as MacBeth began to clean “Isabella,” she realized the original paint was in better condition than the MFA examiners had thought.
“Treating the painting had the potential to bring back a very good portrait,” said MacBeth, who removed varnish and paint from previous restorations first. Conservators then restored areas where paint had been stripped and applied a thin layer of varnish in keeping with the times of the work’s creation.
When the Koch Gallery reopened in September after being renovated, “Isabella” once again had special standing on the MFA’s walls.