After a six-month hiatus, the museum’s painting A Musical Conversation by Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter de Hooch—a peer of Jan Vermeer who also found his greatness in quiet domestic scenes—is back on view. Now hanging in Gallery 2 as part of the installation Treasures of Devotion, the painting may appear refreshed to you, like a 10-year-old car after a wash and wax. That’s because it underwent a deep clean by paintings conservator Kathryn Harada (pictured below, right, with Chief Operating Officer Penni Hall).
Stewardship of artwork is a big part of every museum’s mission. When a collection includes more than 55,000 works, prioritizing which painting, sculpture, sealskin parka, Hawaiian quilt, scroll, or wood carving gets the TLC it needs is key. Each year, the museum has a budget for art conservation, and HoMA Registrar Kyle Swartzlender thought it was time to devote some of it to A Musical Conversation.
“It wasn’t in bad shape, but it was very dark, which is what happens as varnish ages,” explains Swartzlender, who has helped care for the collections of the National Gallery of Art and the University of Texas at Austin’s Fine Arts Library.
So he enlisted Harada, whose area of expertise is Dutch master works, to assess the 349-year-old painting. In addition, Harada, who is based in Los Angeles, has Hawai‘i roots. HoMA converted a natural-light-filled Art School classroom into a studio for her, and in July 2022 she began a close examination of the condition of the work, which would determine her course of treatment.
“The painting is in excellent condition considering its age,” says Harada, who has worked at such institutions as the National Gallery of Art, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Because the work is in such relatively good shape, Harada focused on cleaning the old, discolored natural resin varnish layer, which she conducted last December.
“Natural resin varnishes are made from tree resins such as damar or mastic, and while they create a very beautiful surface that deeply saturates the paint colors, these varnishes naturally darken toward an amber color as they age, making the composition more difficult to see,” explains Harada. “After extensive testing to make sure that I could reduce the varnish but not affect the paint layer, I cleaned the varnish using a special type of non-woven synthetic tissue, designed to act as an effective poultice. This tissue, when saturated with a tailored mixture of solvents and applied to the surface of the painting, was able to pull the re-solubilized varnish into its structure. This allowed me to safely remove the varnish from the painting’s surface with very minimal mechanical action.”
Stripping the varnish revealed areas of damage that had been previously conserved—something museum curators hadn’t been aware of. And she found the painting is lined—adhered to a secondary fabric support—which was probably done to stabilize old tears in the primary canvas. Harada removed much of the old retouching at the same time as the varnish, and once cleaning was completed, she reassessed the painting’s surface.
“In conservation, we follow ethical guidelines and use materials known for their stability and reversibility, so that the future caretakers of our cultural heritage will be able to identify and reverse our work if necessary,” says Harada. “Along these lines, I applied a layer of clear synthetic varnish to the painting before I added any retouching materials to camouflage the damages and losses in the composition.”
She retouched only damaged areas, taking great care to avoid applying any color over original paint surfaces. “The goal is to make the damages ‘disappear’ so the work of the artist can be seen without esthetic distraction,” Harada explains.
Swartzlender is thrilled with the results, pointing out that, “You can see significantly more detail.” Before conservation, the central figure’s dress was yellowish. Now it is a shimmering bluish white. Details in the paintings hanging in the background have also emerged.
In addition, oil paint can increase in transparency over time, leading to loss of detail. Harada reveals a hidden secret—invisible to the naked eye, de Hooch’s signature emerges when UV light is trained on a spot just above the doorway in the painting (pictured in top image).
Painting conservation is more than a technical exercise for Harada. “Working so closely on a painting really puts you in touch with the artist, and you can observe so much about their techniques and methods,” she says. “I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to work on this gem of a painting by Pieter de Hooch. I would characterize this treatment as one where there were no big surprises in terms of condition or stability, but it held many challenges nonetheless.”
About A Musical Conversation
While Pieter de Hooch is nowhere near as well-known as his contemporary Jan Vermeer, whose one-person exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum earlier this year was a global phenomenon, his impulses, contexts and peer groups were similar, says Director of Curatorial Affairs Catherine Whitney.
The work has an important place in the HoMA collection. Whitney notes how the painting “transports the viewer to another time and place—a period of great wealth and prosperity in Calvinist Netherlands” and is also an innuendo-filled tableau.
“This is what is known as a merry-company scene and involves the possible invitation for a ‘musical duet,’ which would have been known by Dutch people of the era to speak to sensual and mischievous undercurrents versus chaste love,” explains Whitney. “The dog and the background painting of Venus, the goddess of sensual love, would have added recognizable implications.”
All these details are why from 2010 to 2018, A Musical Conversation played a key role in the for-credit elective Enhancing Clinical Skills Through Art that the museum created with the John A. Burns School of Medicine, designed to help medical students be more observant, while remaining unbiased.