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Conservation of 'Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante' by Vigée Le Brun

Lady Lever Art Gallery collection

The painting before conservation treatment, showing the yellowed and discoloured varnish. The painting during varnish removal, with rectangles of the cleaned areas at the sides. The painting 'Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante' after conservation treatment was completed A detail of the infrared reflectogram showing the original depiction of the sleeve on Lady Hamilton's dress and left shoulder A detail of the X-radiograph showing the sleeve in more detail and changes to the sitter's arms A detail of the infrared reflectogram showing the change to the left arm A detail of the tambourine with paint visible at the upper right and lower edges, showing the previous position of the instrument. A detail of the sitter's face, showing the use of blue paint to create cool shadows

Select each image to see a larger version.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s painting 'Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante' was conserved in 2015 before going on loan to the first retrospective exhibition in Europe of the artist’s work. Fragile cracked areas of paint were repaired and strengthened and a thick and discoloured varnish layer was removed.

The images above show the conservation work, as well as some of the discoveries made when the painting was examined.

Examination of the painting

The examination and treatment of the painting revealed some interesting things about the history of the painting and technique of the artist.

Close examination of the paint layers revealed that the composition underwent a few changes during the painting process. Initially Lady Hamilton’s dress had a sleeve painted on the left shoulder and a scarf floated down from her right wrist to the left of her dress. When the painting was later reworked, the sleeve and scarf were painted out. 

The original depiction of the sleeve is visible through further analytical techniques, including infrared reflectography and X-radiography. The appearance of the scarf, however, is more visible in ordinary light. This is because the scarf was covered with only a thin layer of blue paint. Over time, as the oil in the paint has aged and increased in transparency, the scarf underneath has become more visible through this blue layer.

Before or during the painting of the background, the picture was extended on both sides by attaching the first painting canvas onto another larger canvas (this traditional process is called ‘lining’). Next, priming material was added onto the bare canvas at the sides and the background and sky were painted in. 

The extensions at the sides made the picture 8 cm wider than it was when the artist first started painting. It is unclear exactly why the extensions were added; perhaps the change was made to fit a particular frame or the artist thought the composition needed more space at the sides.

Around this time Vigée Le Brun also reworked the sitter’s left arm to bring it lower and outward and moved the tambourine further to the left. The alterations to the arms and the tambourine may have been done as a result of the extensions to the canvas allowing more room for the composition.

Close examination also revealed some interesting aspects of Vigée Le Brun’s paint technique. For example the artist sometimes used touches of blue paint under the flesh tones of Lady Hamilton’s face to create cooler shadows that contrasted with the warmer tones of her face. 

Further information

Blog posts

Find out more about this painting on the blog.

painting of a woman holding a tambourine

When Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun met Emma Hamilton

9 July

We know quite a lot about Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Emma Hamilton, and what she thought of Emma, because in the mid 1820s, towards the end of a long painting career of more than 50 years, she decided to write up her diaries and publish them as memoirs in 1836-37. Read more about When Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun met Emma Hamilton

Lady Hamilton's face

Lady Hamilton restored and rediscovered

30 March

In summer 2015 Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s painting Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante from the Lady Lever Art Gallery was conserved by Kristina Mandy. Kristina joined National Museums Liverpool as a paintings conservator on a six month contract from May to November 2015. Read more about Lady Hamilton restored and rediscovered