When Leenhardt gets his colors back

From June 16 to September 4, the Beaux-Arts de Paris will host the Maison Chaumet exhibition "Végétal - L'École de la beauté". Among the 400 works on display are several objects from the UM's heritage, including a painting by Montpellier painter Max Leenhardt. This painting underwent a spectacular restoration by Thierry Martel and Anne Baxter, who opened the doors of her studio to us.

Anne Baxter welcomes us to her home in the hills above Montpellier that morning. Temperatures are still mild, but the restorer's workshop is already buzzing with activity. It has to be said that deadlines are tight. In less than a week, the large canvas she is working on will be crated and shipped to the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris. From June 16, art and botanical enthusiasts can look forward to the Beaux-Arts and Maison Chaumet exhibition "Végétal - L'École de la beauté"(Sortir à Paris 14/02/22).

Botanical scene

The 400 works on display include 80 pieces of Chaumet haute joaillerie, as well as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, a bronze by Sarah Bernhardt, paintings by Monet, Courbet, Delacroix, Arcimboldo... and a canvas by one of Montpellier's most famous painters: Max Leenhardt. In this large painting (approx. 2 m x 1.60 m), entitled Le laboratoire de l'ancien Institut de botanique, the artist depicts a man, Professor Léopold Galavielle, with a magnifying glass in hand, observing botanical samples. In the foreground, plants including a Japanese-shaped begonia, a few bottles of liquid, a microscope and glass cloches in front of a glass roof. In the background, a second scientist bent over his microscope.

This picture was painted at the end of the 19th century, around 1890," explains Véronique Bourgade, heritage curator at the UM. In the thesis* that specialist Isabelle Laborie wrote on the subject, we learn thatit was placed with its counterpart, "Une herborisation d'étudiants dans la garrigue", in the vestibule of the Richer de Belleval pavilion, before being hung in the1st floor hall of the Institut de botanique until the late 90s. It was then placed in storage to ensure its preservation until it could be restored. The restoration was finally made possible by Chaumet, who, in exchange for the loan, covered the cost of the work (around 18,000 euros).

Tears and cracks

After more than a century of hanging, the painting had not escaped the ravages of time. First of all, it had to be meticulously cleaned, as the canvas had suffered from dampness among other things," explains Anne Baxter, a heritage restorer with a thorough knowledge of Leenhardt's works and a regular collaborator of the Fabre museum. We also had to repair and mask a 32 cm tear and repair several badly damaged areas. Colors that had faded over time were re-saturated with a resin that preserves the canvas's semi-matt appearance.

Another difficulty was the numerous cracks caused by compression of the canvas. " Another painting had already been painted on the reverse side of the canvas with a much thicker opaque beige paint which, as it aged, exerted a mechanical compression effect on its front side, resulting in numerous cracks". Cracks, but also numerous small stains that are difficult to hide due to the chemical nature of the materials used by the painter. " In some of his paintings, Leenhardt added casein to his paint and alternated layers of varnish and paint .Here, the inhomogeneous composition of the paint makes retouching a little complex, since we have to take the time to observe any chemical reactions of the products we use. This can take from several minutes to several days each time. As for retouching matte paint, the final color is obtained only after complete drying, which takes a few minutes or even a few hours," explains Anne Baxter.

Frame replacement

The canvas was stretched on a brand-new stretcher made by heritage restorer Thierry Martel. " The stretcher used by Leenhardt was a salvaged one. It was too damaged to keep, so it was decided to make a new one. The re-use of the canvas and the salvaged stretcher bear witness to Leenhardt's usual economy of means," continues Anne Baxter.

This work revealed an irregular cutout on the right-hand side of the canvas, proof that part of the painting had been removed to match the dimensions of this salvaged stretcher. " In a simulation, Thierry even attempted to reconstruct the original painting by projection, in a format he imagined to be square.

On the other three sides, the restorers uncovered the remains of a false frame composed of black fillets on a red ochre background. " The edges of the painting are badly damaged, having been folded and nailed to the edges of the frame. To reconstitute them, we applied canvas inlays and filled the gaps with white putty." Finally, a new frame was made by Pierre Susimi of ArtProtec.

Research patron

Exhibited for three months at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, " Le laboratoire de l'ancien Institut de botanique" will soon return to the collection of the Université de Montpellier, where it is due to take its place in the Institut de Botanique once the building has been renovated. The space occupied by " Une herborisation d'étudiants dans la garrigue ", its twin painting, will remain empty. " We estimate that the cost of restoring this second painting would be around the same, i.e. between 15,000 and 20,000 euros," explains Véronique Bourgade.

Let's hope that a patron will come forward for a future loan request, so that the public can once again admire this magnificent canvas. A bon entendeur...

* Isabelle Laborie. L'oeuvre, reflet d'un milieu: Michel-Maximilien Leenhardt, dit Max Leenhardt (1853-1941). Art and art history. Université Toulouse le Mirail - Toulouse II, 2019. French. NNT: 2019TOU20041. tel-02901646