Watch a 17th-Century Portrait Magically Get Restored to Its Brilliant Original Colors

Every week, five mil­lion peo­ple in the Unit­ed King­dom alone tune in to the BBC’s Fake or For­tune?, a tele­vi­sion show about the prove­nance and attri­bu­tion of notable works of art. That may well say some­thing about the British char­ac­ter, but it says even more about its host and co-cre­ator, art deal­er Philip Mould. Involved with antiques from a very ear­ly age, he dis­plays in Fake or For­tune? and his oth­er media projects a keen sense of not just how a piece of art appeals to us, but what hid­den poten­tial it car­ries with­in. Take, for instance, the grimy 17th-cen­tu­ry por­trait you can see par­tial­ly restored in the clip above, which he post­ed on Twit­ter this week.

At first glance, the paint­ing might not look that much worse for wear than any­thing else from the Jacobean era, but even the first few min­utes of work reveal the true bril­liance of the col­ors hid­den under­neath what turn out to be lay­ers of brown and yel­low. They’ve actu­al­ly built up in the name of preser­va­tion: over about 200 years, a few (or more than a few) coats of var­nish had been applied to the can­vas in order to pro­tect it, but that var­nish turns col­or over time. Luck­i­ly, with the right tools and the right tech­nique, it comes off.

“The paint­ing was orig­i­nal­ly in a pri­vate col­lec­tion in Eng­land,” Mould told the Tele­graph. “A mix­ture of gel and sol­vent was cre­at­ed, specif­i­cal­ly just to remove the var­nish and not to dam­age the under­ly­ing paint.” Cer­tain­ly the por­trait’s sub­ject would approve of her appear­ance’s return to its for­mer splen­dor, though lit­tle infor­ma­tion remains as to the iden­ti­ty of the lady her­self: “We don’t know the iden­ti­ty yet but cer­tain icono­graph­ic clues are start­ing to emerge,” said Mould. “All we know is she is 36 and it was paint­ed in 1617.”

And so we hap­pen upon anoth­er of the com­pelling aspects of art his­to­ry: its poten­tial to turn into a detec­tive sto­ry. But if you’d like to accom­pa­ny the nar­ra­tive expe­ri­ence with a lit­tle more tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, have a look at the short video above show­ing what it takes to revive a 400-year-old mas­ter­work. Peo­ple once com­mis­sioned por­traits so that pos­ter­i­ty could know their like­ness­es, but one won­ders if they under­stood just how far into pos­ter­i­ty their like­ness­es would make it — some of them, thanks to art restor­ers, look­ing fresh­er than they have for cen­turies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Restor­ing a 400-Year-Old Paint­ing: A Five-Minute Primer

The Art of Restor­ing Clas­sic Films: Cri­te­ri­on Shows You How It Refreshed Two Hitch­cock Movies

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Short Film Takes You Inside the Recov­ery of Andy Warhol’s Lost Com­put­er Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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