Before embarking on the conservation of Saul and David, the team at the Mauritshuis studied the painting thoroughly. We assembled an international committee of advisers and set out to answer a number of key questions regarding the original dimensions, the curtain and the attribution. In many ways the research on the painting resembled a crime scene investigation.
We now know that the format of Saul and David was originally different from what it is today, but reconstructing the original format has proved to be a challenge. Using the latest equipment and research methods clearly showed that the current painting consists of no fewer than fifteen different pieces of canvas: two large pieces from the original canvas (one with Saul and one with David), complemented by an old canvas (a copy of a portrait of Anthony van Dyck) and other strips on the edges of the painting. The exhibition features a 3D reproduction of the original format.
The condition of Saul and David was not ideal. Although structurally sound, it certainly looked the worse for wear. The two figures were relatively well preserved, although worn in places. The prominent vertical join and added piece were disfiguring. The paint surface was heavily flattened throughout, and the old varnish was yellowed and cracked.
Petria Noble, then Head of Conservation at the Mauritshuis, began a careful and gradual removal of the varnish and the overpaint, informed by the new research and intended to improve the painting's appearance. What emerged was a patchwork of canvases. Surprisingly, a strip at the bottom was found to display fingers, which proved to come from the same canvas (the Van Dyck copy) as the large piece at the upper right. Carol Pottasch and Susan Smelt continued with the treatment.
Curtain Viewer developed by: Prof. Robert Erdmann
The aim was not to completely disguise the painting’s history. The seams between the different pieces of canvas are still visible if you look very closely, but they no longer interfere with the painting’s overall appearance.