Facelifts & Makeovers Mauritshuis Den Haag

Facelifts & Makeovers

Unfortunately, our exhibition Facelifts & Make-overs came to an early end, due to Covid-19. Have you missed it? Visit the entire exhibition online.

Told by

Sabrina Meloni, Restaurator Mauritshuis

Sabrina Meloni

Conservator Mauritshuis

Carol Pottasch, Restaurator Mauritshuis

Carol Pottasch

Conservator Mauritshuis

Abbie Vandivere (1)

Abbie Vandivere


Upstairs in the Mauritshuis attic is the conservation studio. This is the domain of our conservators Carol Pottasch, Sabrina Meloni and Abbie Vandivere. Together with a team of interns and external specialists, they ensure that the centuries-old paintings in the Mauritshuis are kept in good condition. They also do much more, such as researching the materials and techniques used by painters.

Facelifts & Makeovers offers a glimpse into the world of our conservators. How do they work? What secrets lie concealed within the layers of paint? How do they know what the original condition of a painting was like? And which dilemmas do they face? Welcome to the hidden world of conservation.

A sneak peek in our conservation studio

Before we enter the exhibition room, our conservators Carol Pottasch, Sabrina Meloni and Abbie Vandivere take you on a tour through the restoration studio.

The location of the studio is extremely useful for the conservators as it means they can work close to the collection; however, it was not built to accommodate museum visitors. Nonetheless we really want to share our discoveries and research with you, which is why we have organised this exhibition.

Welcome to the exhibition room

When you enter the room, you emmediately run into this painting by Jan Steen. Usually this panel hangs on the wall, with special glass in the frame and a protective board on the back. These have now been removed so you can see the painting from the front and from the back. It is a wooden panel with paint on it. These are both materials that can deteriorate over time, so without protection the painting is vulnerable.

Facelifts & Makeovers Mauritshuis Den Haag

The Doctor’s Visit Jan Steen

Conservation treatment by Sabrina Meloni, 2011-2012

While treating this painting in 2011, conservator Sabrina Meloni made a remarkable discovery: Jan Steen had used the panel before! Today you see an image of a quack doctor and a young woman. She is not really ill, other than suffering from lovesickness. The layout of Steen’s earlier depiction, with people on the terrace of an inn, can be seen in the video, where research techniques are explained.

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Small exhibition room

We now turn left into the small exhibition room. There are seven paintings on the wall, each accompanied by an iPad with extra information. We walk from left to right:

Facelifts & Makeovers Mauritshuis Ronde zaal

Fruit Still Life Cornelis de Heem

Conservation treatment by Ellen Nigro, 2017-2018

You may notice a varnish layer on almost every painting in the Mauritshuis. Varnish protects the underlying paint from damp and dirt, and makes the colours appear more radiant. There is one drawback, however: slowly but surely, varnishes become yellow and less transparent over time, particularly older varnishes. During treatment, the conservator removes old, yellowed varnish layers with solvents. These are then replaced with modern, more stable varnishes. This treatment often spectacularly alters the appearance of a painting. It is always a surprise when the original, often fresher, colours emerge. That was true of this fruit still life by Cornelis de Heem.

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In this 3D reconstruction of the still life during varnish removal, you can see a matt area where the varnish has already been removed, and a glossy area where old varnish still remains. This is what a painting looks like during a makeover. Where the varnish has been removed, the composition temporarily loses its depth and the details are less defined. A new varnish layer will make the colours sparkle once more.

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A Fishmonger at the Door Jacob Ochtervelt

Conservation treatment by Amanda Frisosky and Petria Noble, 2006

For a long time, this painting hung high on a wall in the Prince William V Gallery: the Mauritshuis annex. Today’s striking colours and subtle details were hidden beneath a thick layer of brown varnish that was more than sixty years old. This meant that you could no longer see the three-dimensional effect of the floor. The varnish was easily removed in 2006 and a flawless painting emerged from underneath. An asset for the museum.

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Can you see the year 1663 above the door opening? This also suddenly reappeared during the varnish removal. The painter made some of his best works in that year. Look, for example, at how the gleaming fabric of the skirt has been painted! The picture was given a new layer of varnish and was also reworked in places. After the application of a final varnish layer, this attractive painting was given a new place of honour in the museum.

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0195 Before2

Woman Sewing Beside a Cradle Gerard ter Borch

Conservation treatment by Sabrina Meloni, 2004-2008

In 2004, a generous benefactor gave this painting to the Mauritshuis. It was not immediately displayed in the museum, however, because the varnish layer had yellowed and was extremely dull. No-one had expected conservation treatment to take long, but the old varnish proved to be insoluble. The particular varnish used was intended for boats rather than paintings. It could only be safely removed with a small knife. Conservator Sabrina Meloni used a scalpel blade while looking through a microscope. She worked very precisely and carefully, millimetre by millimetre. It meant she spent countless hours with the painting.

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Sabrina then removed some old restorations, which revealed some damage. After applying a new varnish layer, the next step was to touch up (‘retouch’) these damaged areas. In order to reconstruct the missing areas of the chimney for this makeover, for example, Sabrina carefully studied similar paintings by Gerard ter Borch.

All audio clips

  • Sabrina Meloni

    Conservator Mauritshuis

    Sabrina Meloni, Restaurator Mauritshuis

Bust of Constantijn Huygens, surrounded by a Garland of Flowers Daniël Seghers en Jan Cossiers

Conservation treatment by Masayuki Hinoue, 2018

This flower still life is by the Antwerp painter Daniël Seghers. A second artist, Jan Cossiers, added a bust of Constantijn Huygens in the centre. The painting had disappeared off the radar until it resurfaced in 2018. All that time it had been stored in a room somewhere, without a protective frame. This is why it headed straight to the conservation studio for thorough treatment after it had been purchased.

Daniël Seghers, Jan Cossiers Bloemencartouche Rond Een Buste Van Constantijn Huygens MH1216 Mauritshuis

The appearance of the still life, painted on a copper plate, had been spoilt by yellowed varnish layers and dirt on the surface. Removing the varnish proved to be a challenge: the paint layers were not securely bonded to the copper and were being held in place by the varnish. The conservator had to do two things simultaneously: remove the varnish, while re-bonding the paint to the copper plate – an exciting and labour-intensive project. Conservator Masayuki Hinoue first carefully removed an area of the varnish before securing the paint – by applying glue beneath the paint – so that the rest of the varnish could be safely removed. Everything is now securely back in place, including the magnificent butterflies.

Peasant Inn Cornelis Dusart en Adriaen van Ostade

Conservation treatment by Carol Pottasch and Charlotte Blachon, 2010-2011

Sometimes conservation treatment leads to new insights about the maker of an artwork. Until 2010, the only name visible on this panel was that of the Haarlem painter Cornelis Dusart, in the bottom left-hand corner. After yellowed varnish layers and later additions were removed, a second signature appeared: ‘Av. Ostade’, Adriaen van Ostade. Both signatures were applied in the same dark brown paint and can be considered original. 

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Adriaen van Ostade was the teacher of Dusart, who was fifty years his junior. They both specialised in peasant scenes. This is the only known work where both signatures appear. The most logical explanation for this is that after Van Ostade’s death the painting was finished by Dusart, who had taken over the contents of his teacher’s studio.

Self-Portrait Paulus Moreelse

Conservation treatment by Lieve d’Hont, 2014-2015

This self-portrait by the Utrecht painter Paulus Moreelse underwent conservation treatment especially for an exhibition about self-portraits. As is customary, the conservator began by removing the varnish layers that had yellowed dramatically. That resulted here in a true facelift, because Moreelse’s face came completely back to life. His collar also turned out to contain more detail than originally thought.

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Later additions from previous restorations were then also removed, notably in the black clothing and background. These were areas where a lot of original paint had been lost. Retouching these missing areas was a big undertaking. In the black sections especially, this was made all the more difficult by the subtle nuances of colour. A costume specialist provided important tips for better understanding these colour variations in the black areas. Since its treatment, this self-portrait has been on permanent display in the museum, in a new frame, which makes the black outfit stand out all the more.

Portrait of a Man with a Samson Medal Flemish painter

Conservation treatment by Abbie Vandivere, 2017-2018

This painting is one of the oldest portraits in the Mauritshuis collection – it was made around 500 years ago. Its maker remains unknown, but the portrait can be dated on the basis of the man’s red hat. Hats like this were popular between 1515 and 1530.

Treating this portrait was no easy task. During the restoration, it became apparent that the background had been entirely repainted. This is often the case with old portraits like this and was done to mask discolouration or damage. Based on the paint used, we know that the new layer was applied before 1750.

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Conservator Abbie Vandivere was also faced with extremely old varnish layers and later additions that were very difficult to remove. She eventually managed to expose the background’s original green paint using a special gel.

Since the painting had lost its original frame, we had a 16th-century frame copied. Today you see this unknown man with his striking red hat and carnation by himself, but there was possibly once also a second portrait of his future wife.

Large exhibtion room

Now we enter the large exhibition room. Here we start with the three painting on the back wall. 

Grote zaal Facelifts & Makeovers Mauritshuis

Portrait of William I Adriaen Key

Conservation treatment by Anna van Milligen, 2008-2009 and Carol Pottasch, 2016-2017

The conservation treatment of this portrait of William of Orange was a complex task and took a long time as a result. The left-hand plank of the panel had become damaged at some point, possibly by woodworm. That is why this section had been replaced with another piece of wood, to the left of the prince’s face. Luckily, his face was well preserved, despite the sizeable crack that ran through it from top to bottom.

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The greatest challenge during the treatment process was the new strip of wood. There was nothing left to see, as almost all the paint had disappeared. Conservator Carol Pottasch had to completely reconstruct the prince’s shoulder and clothing in this empty area. As a guide, she used two other, similar portraits that Key had made of the prince. In this example, ‘makeover’ is definitely the right word.

Suzanna Rembrandt van Rijn

Conservation treatment by Petria Noble, 2002

Much has happened to this painting over the years. During the conservation treatment, the dull and dark varnish was removed. This revealed Rembrandt’s brushstrokes once again, in Susanna’s skin for example. Details such as the impression of the stocking in her leg also became much clearer. On the right-hand side, it turned out that a strip of more than four centimetres had been attached to the rectangular panel, probably in the 18th century. A join that goes right through the depiction and signature is visible here. Presumably that piece of wood had been attacked by woodworm and was replaced as a result.

Rembrandt Suzanna MH147 Mauritshuis

It also became clear that Rembrandt originally gave his composition a curved upper edge and left the corners empty – these were only painted in the 18th century. During the treatment process, it was decided that while these additions should be preserved, they would be covered by a new frame. As a result, we now see the painting as Rembrandt intended. The curved frame intensifies the dramatic effect of the painting. It is as if you are spying on the naked Susanna through a peephole, just like the two old men standing in the bushes on the right.

All audio clips

  • Quentin Buvelot

    Senior Curator Mauritshuis

    Quentin Buvelot, Hoofdconservator Mauritshuis
0147 Lijst Vierkant
0147 Lijst Rond

William Hyacinth Nicolas de Largillière

Conservation treatment by Rachel Morrison and Sabrina Meloni, 2007-2008

This portrait of Prince Willem Hyacinth by the French painter Nicolas de Largillière is usually on display in the Prince William V Gallery. The painting was once in very poor condition. The prince was hidden behind old layers of varnish and there were very discoloured later additions. These additions were partly applied over original paint, as happened in the top right of the background, where there was a large hole in the original canvas. Holes had also appeared in other areas – we do not know when or why. This was the reason that a lining was applied to the reverse as early as 1875: a lining which is still in place. After the later additions had been removed, the damaged areas, such as those in the blue cloak and the background, were retouched with a stable paint.

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We cross the hall, to the large paintings on the other side. Along the way, take a look at the beautiful display case with historical pigments!

We now walk from right to left:

Facelifts & Makeovers Mauritshuis Den Haag

Portrait of a Young Woman Peter Paul Rubens

Conservation treatment by Linnaea Saunders, Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow, 2003-2004 and Melissa Cacciola, American Friends of the Mauritshuis Conservation Intern, 2009

Peter Paul Rubens painted this woman’s face between 1620 and 1630. He also painted some of her clothing, but the remainder was largely completed by others. Research has revealed that the feathered beret and the fur-trimmed black cloak were added later. Some additions turned out to be from before 1700, while others, such as the blue in the cloak, date from the 18th century. An old copy of the painting shows the original appearance of the painting. You can also see this first stage in the X-ray of the Mauritshuis portrait.

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This conservation project was accompanied by a whole host of ethical issues – in short: a real headache. What in this painting is original and what is not? And if it isn’t by Rubens, but was instead added in the 17th century, should you remove it or should you leave it? Our position is: if there is any doubt, we will not remove anything. Moreover, the old additions turned out to be difficult to remove, which is why the majority remained in place.

Portrait of Quintijn Symons Anthony van Dyck

Conservation treatment by Carol Pottasch, 2003-2004

For a long time, this portrait received little attention. It even hung in the storage depot for a while. This was mainly because the varnish, which was matt and very discoloured, created a haze over the composition. The conservation treatment had a spectacular outcome. Many years after the painter’s death, an additional layer of brown paint had been added to a section of the wall behind the man. With this, someone had tried to suggest a kind of corner in the wall. Luckily, this later addition could easily be removed. More importantly, after the yellowed varnish layers had been removed, a clear and fresh painting emerged, in extremely good condition. It suddenly became clear how attractive this portrait is, with a colourful landscape on the left. Since treatment, the painting once again has a permanent place in the museum.

All audio clips

  • Carol Pottasch

    Conservator Mauritshuis

    Carol Pottasch, Restaurator Mauritshuis
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Diana and her Nymphs Johannes Vermeer

Conservation treatment by Carol Pottasch, Ruth Hoppe and Caroline van der Elst, 1999-2000

There is a big difference in this Vermeer if you compare its appearance before and after restoration. Once you would have seen a cloudy sky behind the goddess Diana and her companions. After research into the paint, this sky turned out not to have been painted by Vermeer. Having weighed up the pros and cons, it was decided to overpaint the cloudy sky in the original green-brown colour. This gave the painting a totally different atmosphere.

Johannes Vermeer  Diana en haar nimfen Diana and her Nymphs

As is common practice nowadays, this treatment is reversible. In other words, the thin paint layer over the cloudy sky can easily be removed if future generations think differently. This significant intervention returned the painting closer to the artist’s original intention. The depiction seems more intimate and the fall of light is more convincing. We have known for a while that this is one of the Delft painter’s earliest works. The rather dreamlike, intimate atmosphere of this depiction fits with his later, famous interior pieces.

All audio clips

  • Carol Pottasch

    Conservator Mauritshuis

    Carol Pottasch, Restaurator Mauritshuis
0406 Before
0406 After

Portrait of Jacob Olycan Frans Hals

Conservation treatment by Alice Tate-Harte and Sabrina Meloni, 2006-2007

Frans Hals painted these two life-sized portraits in 1625: a year after the marriage of Aletta Hanemans and Jacob Olycan. Almost 400 years later, the condition of the paintings left much to be desired. There were painted coats of arms behind the man and woman, but during the restoration these turned out not to be original. A blue pigment had been used in Jacob’s coat of arms: Prussian blue, which did not even exist before 1700. The bright colours used for the coats of arms did not correspond with Frans Hals’s use of colour in any way.

Frans Hals Portret Van Jacob Olycan MH459 Mauritshuis

They were probably added in the 19th century when the portraits were still in this couple’s family. After much deliberation, it was decided to cover the coats of arms with the background colour. This restores the original three-dimensional effect and directs all the attention to the sitters, as Hals intended. The paint added by the conservators is easy to remove should future generations have a different opinion.

Portrait of Aletta Hanemans Frans Hals

Conservation treatment by Sabrina Meloni and Petria Noble, 2006-2007

The couple are very stylishly dressed, according to the latest Spanish fashion. The conservation treatment once again revealed the details of the outfits, including the many black tones. Jacob’s outfit regained depth and contrast, but this was less true for Aletta because her skirt is quite faded.

Frans Hals Portret Van Aletta Hanemans MH460 Mauritshuis

Hals combined two unstable pigments here – blue smalt and red lake – to create the impression of a changeant fabric: the skirt took on different colours depending on the light. The brown areas were once a bluey-purple, but today the skirt has lost some of its sheen. Only the pink highlights are still intact. The video with a reconstruction created by Fahed Ibrahim shows how this part of the painting would have originally looked.

We cross the room again to the three landschapes on the other side.

Facelifts & Makeovers Mauritshuis Den Haag

Wooded Landscape with Hunters and Fortune Teller Abraham Govaerts

Conservation treatment by Jørgen Wadum, 2002-2003

Wood was often used to paint on: it forms a sturdy, smooth base. Most of the panels at the Mauritshuis are made from oak. After the trees were cut down, the trunks were dried for several years. Only after this could boards – and then panels – be made from them. The best boards come ‘radially’ from the tree: that is to say, perpendicular to the growth rings. Boards like this distort less with changes in temperature and humidity.

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Research into the growth rings (known in technical terms as ‘dendrochronology’) can help date paintings. In this panel by an Antwerp artist, dendrochronology revealed a surprising find. The boards for this painting and the panel by another Flemish painter at the Mauritshuis turned out to be from the very same tree!

Merry Company in a Park Esaias van de Velde

Conservation treatment by Marya Albrecht, 2014-2015

As one of the earliest examples of a ‘merry company’, an outdoor party, this is an important painting. Nonetheless, it is not usually on display in the museum. This has everything to do with the work’s condition: the paint used to create the sky is thin, worn and discoloured.

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  • Marya Albrecht, Restaurator Mauritshuis
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Infrared examination revealed a detailed underdrawing: the artist sketched this on the panel before he started painting. The drawing makes it clear that the artist changed many details during the painting process. For example, the older woman on the far left, behind the chair, was initially planned as a fashionably dressed young woman. And in the underdrawing, the woman standing in a yellow dress had a bird, rather than a fan, in her hand. The painter was clearly still trying to work out how to best portray the – then still new – subject of an outdoor party.

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Cows Reflected in the Water Paulus Potter

Conservation treatment by Maartje Witlox, 2001

When painters make changes to their compositions during the painting process, these are known as pentimenti (derived from the Italian word for ‘repentance’). Pentimenti can be made visible using X-ray or infrared imaging. Sometimes these changes can even be seen with the naked eye as a result of the aging or abrasion of the upper paint layer.

Paulus Potter Het Spiegelende Koetje MH137 Mauritshuis

The pentimenti in this painting show that Potter wrestled with the composition. To the right of the dead tree in the foreground, he first painted a couple strolling together, and their dog. They are clearly visible on the X-ray. Possibly because the composition was getting too crowded, the painter decided to cover them over again with some bushes. To the left of the same tree, Potter turned a cow that was previously standing into one that is lying down. You can clearly see this with infrared imaging. The painter obviously wanted to improve how all the different elements related to each other. He found it difficult to get the animals to scale: the grazing sheep is still far too large in relation to the drinking cow.

A Man Smoking and a Woman Drinking in a Courtyard Pieter de Hooch

Conservation treatment by Hannah Backes and Sabrina Meloni, 2020-present

A courtyard with a man smoking a pipe, a woman drinking and a standing girl can be seen in this canvas by Pieter de Hooch. Thanks to the X-ray of this painting, it was already known that there was once another figure sitting at the table. There is another, earlier version of the painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, showing this fourth figure: a soldier sits between the man and woman. 

Pieter De Hooch Binnenplaats Met Rokende Man En Drinkende Vrouw Mh0835 Mauritshuis

Both paintings were recently shown alongside each other at an exhibition in Delft. Enough reasons for the Mauritshuis to examine and restore its own version. Since then, the yellowed varnish and later additions have been removed. The contours of the fourth figure emerged in the area where the fence is. Pieter de Hooch did not remove this soldier himself. This took place later – certainly before 1822, long before the painting came to the Mauritshuis. The parts of the soldier that are left are his jacket (on the fence), his pipe (on the table) and a piece of his thumb (on the beer tankard). Without the soldier, the picture takes on a very different appearance – it looks like a family. 

All audio clips

  • Sabrina Meloni

    Conservator Mauritshuis

    Sabrina Meloni, Restaurator Mauritshuis
Pieter De Hooch De Verdwenen Soldaat Tentoonstelling Facelifts En Makeovers

In the version in Washington, you see the painting’s true subject: the laughing soldier is playing a drinking game with the woman. He has just filled up her glass from his beer tankard and she has to drink to the next stripe on her glass.

Facelifts Makeovers Tentoonstelling De Hooch Washington

A tour through our conservation studio