Water Lilies

Claude Monet, 1916
Factum Arte, 2017

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Factum Arte and Factum Foundation digitally reconstructed a damaged Monet´s Water Lilies (1916). The painting, originally in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was heavily damaged in a fire in 1958. The burnt painting was donated by the MoMA to NYU´s Institute of Fine Arts. A guiding factor in this reconstruction was the absence of colour documentation – only one black-and-white conservation image existed –despite the fact that the painting created huge sensation on its arrival at MOMA in the 1950s.

Photograph of Monet´s painting before the fire in 1956

Digitizing the painting

Both the colour and 3D texture of the painting burned surface were recorded using close-range photogrammetry. This is a non-contact technique whereby images of an object are taken with more than 80% overlap at approximately 50cm from the surface. The images are processed with specialised software (RealityCapture in this case) to output a 3D object file and an 8bit image file (colour information).

The surface of the painting was highly reflective –this lead the Factum team to record the painting twice: first with ambient light, then withcross-polarised flash illumination to minimise reflections and thus the potential for noisy data. Areas of the painting were also recorded using Factum’s Lucida 3D Laser Scanner to corroborate the quality of the photogrammetry model. Both 3D models had resolutions within 100 microns.

The burnt Monet was recorded at NYU's Insitute of Fine Arts with photogrammetry and the Lucida 3D Scanner

Digitizing Monet´s painting with photogrammetry

The Lucida 3D Scanner recorded the relief of the painting

Re-materializing the relief

Some of the original surface of the painting had survived the fire but the canvas was badly creased, ruptured bubbles had marred the texture, which was also damaged with bumps and scratches. The objective in this part of the process was almost to carry out a physical ‘restoration’ on the surface of the facsimile. The 3D model of the canvas obtained via photogrammetry was converted into a greyscale height-map and printed using OCE’s 3D printing technology. A silicon mould was taken from the 3D print and cast in plaster.

Close up detail render of the 3D scanned surface

The relief of the Monet recorded with the Lucida 3D scanner was printed at Océ using their elevated printing techologies

This plaster cast was used as the basis for the restoration: creases were levelled, holes filled, and texture added to the areas beneath the conservation patches. The ‘restored’ plaster cast was used to produce a second silicon mould that was itself cast in gesso. The back of the gesso cast was glued onto a linen canvas, using a vacuum during the transfer to ensure that no air remained between the textured gesso and the linen.

A silicone mould was preapared copying the information of the Océ panels

Vacum transferring the texture from the silicone mould to the lining canvas

The silicone mould transferred onto a linen skin

Texture gesso over linen ready to be printed

Restoring the colour information

The image file revealed far more usable data than initially expected: the powerful flashes used to light the painting during the recording had exposed remnants of colour hidden within the charred surface. At this point, the decision was taken to perform a digital restoration in Photoshop, employing the image file as a means to recover as much information as possible from the original. Visible colour was cloned to surrounding areas where colour had been less well-preserved, thus recovering the vibrant colours in the greater part of the canvas. Reconstructing patched or severely damaged areas was more complex; here the existing black and white image was used as a guide when recreating shapes and brush strokes. In some cases, colour was visible even beneath the patches and here too was used to direct the digital restoration.

Actual state of the painting after the fire in 1958

First part of digital restauration. Orthophoto obtained with Capture Reality software

Second part of digital restoration after colour reconstruction and clearning.

Third part of digital restoration after clearning and removal of consolidation tapes. Files ready to be printed for colour correction

In the early stages of the process, it was unclear whether or not the fire had also damaged the tones of colours exposed in the image file; whether, for example, the pigments had been oxidised and lost their original tone. This issue was approached by analysing Monet’s Water Lilies series from the same period, which would have been painted using similar colour palettes. It was found, for example, that the turquoise and green tones ‘lifted’ from the blackened canvas were almost identical to those used by Monet in canvases of the same time. The blues in our painting, however, had lost their original tones and were corrected in a final adjustment through comparison with this contemporaneous series.

Surface details during the initial phases of digital restoration

Initial phases of digital restoration

Detail of the surface during the colour restoration

Removing consolidation tapes

Bringing 2D and 3D together

The colour data was printed directly onto this textured gesso using Factum’s flatbed printers with which it is possible to register the colour very exactly onto a surface, ensuring that the colour is lined up very accurately with texture. For the final varnish, several options were tested before deciding on rabbit glue which gave a semi-matte surface similar to that of other Monet paintings.

Pringting the colour onto the textured canvas

The colour information was printed on the linen with the relief using Factum Arte´s flatbed printer

Final Work

Final reconstruction of Monet´s Water lilies


Water Lilies - Claude Monet – painted at Giverny in 1925

Destroyed in a fire at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 15th 1958

Today Monet’s vast paintings of a lily pond are recognised as a major landmark in the story of modern art - a visionary link between 19th century Impressionism and the abstract painters of the 1950s, but these paintings weren’t always so popular. 

At the age of 74 Claude Monet was wealthy and famous, but Impressionism, the great radical art movement he pioneered had fallen out of fashion, his wife and his oldest son had recently died, his eyesight was failing and he was suffering from deep depression. Then in April 1914 his close friend George Clemenceau, the man who would lead France through the final years of the Great War, paid him a visit at his house in Normandy. Over lunch Clemenceau encouraged Monet to embark on a new project - a series of panoramic canvases to decorate the walls of a large room. This project would turn out to dominate the rest of the artist’s life.

While the guns of the First World War echoed in the distance, Monet sat on the banks of the large lily pond he had built at the bottom of his garden, painting the fleeting interaction of water and light. He worked relentlessly, eventually producing more than 100 large scale works and he was obliged to construct a new industrial sized studio to accommodate the giant canvases. When the war ended, Clemenceau came to visit his old friend. Monet showed him the giant waterscapes offering to donate some of the canvases as a memorial to the fallen of France. In fact it was another 8 years before the paintings left his studio as Monet continued to work and rework them obsessively, until he died in 1926. It was only then that 22 panels, nearly 90 metres of canvas, were finally installed in the Orangerie Museum in Paris. It was a blessing that Monet did not witness their reception: when the museum opened, the giant panorama was dismissed as the daubings of a tired old man.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the remaining large scale canvases began to emerge from storage in Monet’s mothballed studio and in 1955 a curator from MoMA managed to buy one of the very last of the Water Lilies to be completed. In New York it quickly became a centrepiece of the museum, enhanced by what gallery goers saw as the links between Monet’s waterscapes and the new abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. 

Then in April 1958, a workman accidentally dropped a cigarette igniting a major fire in the museum; one man died, and 25 were injured. Most of the artworks were rescued but the giant Monet was tragically destroyed by the fire brigade breaking into the building. Among the other casualties a second Monet, an earlier smaller study of the pond, was badly scorched. The giant picture had been so popular it was decided it had to be replaced immediately and a triptych of Water Lilies was purchased in Paris. Its installation was celebrated by the largest ever exhibition of Monet’s work.

The smaller painting was hidden away in the museum vaults after several failed attempts at restoration.

Text by Rupert Edwards

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