Before the National Gallery of Art could unveil its recent acquisition—the Vincent Van Gogh gem “Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves,” which hasn’t been on public view for half a century—it had to get past Ann Hoenigswald. The gallery’s senior paintings conservator, Hoenigswald began a painstaking restoration of the piece in March. Among the work needed: removing varnish that had discolored parts of the painting; removing paint from a previous, less-than-stellar restoration; retouching areas of color loss; and consolidating paint from a few areas that were flaking. “We knew the picture did not look the way it was supposed to look,” Hoenigswald says.

To begin, Hoenigswald and her colleagues worked to determine what colors were used, how they were layered, and how the artist used his brush, among other things. The team employed microscopes, X-rays, infrared imaging, research, and their own eyeballs to gather data. “It’s this combination of art history and skill as a studio artist, and also understanding something about the chemistry of the materials,” she says.

Though this project was considered a major restoration, meaning that the appearance of the painting was actually altered, Hoenigswald says the picture “was in remarkably good condition.” She also thinks “Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves” will resonate with art historians. “In terms of a composition, it’s one of the most interesting and edgiest still lifes that he has done,” she says, citing the unusual diagonal arrangement and the mysterious blue gloves.

“You’re sitting and standing in front of it for hours at a time, and you have these thoughts: What is it about, what does it mean?” says Hoenigswald, who has been restoring paintings at the National Gallery since 1977. “I really kept thinking that this is a really remarkable still life.”

Place your cursor over the red circles on the painting for more details and commentary from Hoenigswald.

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