Sara Mateu

What are we gluing here? Structural stability versus reversibility: the dilemma of the structural conservator of panel paintings


Sara Mateu


Repairing fractures and disjoints, laying inserts, reconstructing missing parts, improving the appearance of the surface and reshaping the curvature of the painting are treatments that a structural conservator of panels performs regularly. Deciding on the technique and materials to do so isn’t always a straightforward task. The structural conservator must ensure stability while observing the ethical guidelines of the profession. The conflict arises when the problems of the panel demand invasive repair techniques or materials which reversibility doesn’t come without a cost. In a few cases panels display additional complications inherent to their construction or related to past restorations that may demand the modification of original or historically relevant elements. Not to forget that personal preferences, experience and working conditions play an important role in the choices the structural conservator makes.

Summarized in a few words, there is often a compromise to make when it comes to the structural conservation of panel paintings. The choices of the different conservation schools generate a heated debate among professionals that is far from being settled.

This presentation will give an overview of two case studies that presented particular problems. The first case study, the restoration of Dance of the Virtues (IPARC), a Tüchlein pasted on a poplar panel, required the modification of the object’s construction, as it was the source of all damage to the support and of over-restorations of the paint film. Although the construction wasn’t original it had historical relevance.

The second case study was the first of my career as a structural conservator and my role was assisting the senior structural conservator in the treatment of a large panel painting with severe damage. Epoxy resins and a repair technique requiring the removal of original material had to be used to ensure the structural stability and to improve aesthetical aspects. The case was my first approach to such technique, which represents better than any other the dilemma between structural stability and reversibility in the structural field.

The presentation of both cases will review the context in which the restoration took place, the technical features of the objects, the problematic points of their conservation condition, the goal of the treatment, and the decision making process that put in balance structural stability and reversibility, so a compromise could be reached to ensure the long-term conservation of the object.