Conservation of a Rubens Masterpiece Turns Up Hidden Alterations

The painting's composition was significantly altered in the 17th century.

Conservator Britta New retouching Peter Paul Rubens's The Judgement of Paris during the conservation treatment. © The National Gallery, London.

A 14-month conservation of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1963–65) by the National Gallery in London has uncovered a litany of additions and alterations long hidden under the layers of paint in the iconic masterpiece.  

The latter-day work by the Flemish master depicts a scene from the Greek myth of Paris. At the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, the goddess of discord Eris offered a golden apple to the fairest of the goddesses, tossing it amid the guests. Juno, Minerva, and Venus fought over the apple, and Paris, a shepard, was roped in to decide the winner (he picked Venus).  

Rubens returned to this scene in several paintings, honing his rendering of the nude females. Versions of Paris hang in the Prado in Madrid and the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden; the iteration in the National Gallery, acquired in 1844, represents one of the key and undisputedly autograph works.

Peter Paul Rubens's "The Judgement of Paris": Paris, a shepherd, chooses between three goddesses, Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, in a lush landscape.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1632–35). © The National Gallery, London.

During conservation, the painting was subjected to scientific analysis using non-invasive techniques including X-ray fluorescence and reflectance imaging spectroscopy. Conservators found that the canvas had undergone a number of restorations since Rubens’s death in 1640. What’s notable was the work done between 1676 and 1721, likely by a French artist, which significantly altered the painting’s composition.

The French intervention chiefly sought to underplay the work’s erotic quality, without obscuring the nudity of the three goddesses. In Rubens’s original work, a third cherub could be seen tugging on Minerva’s shift, but the modification left only a single hand. Paris’s posture and clothing were also altered: Rubens had originally dressed the Greek hero in a broad hat with a shirt that covered his shoulders, while Mercury, positioned next to Paris, was depicted gesturing at the goddesses with his right arm. 

X-ray of a detail of The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens showing two men, one behind a tree and one seated while holding out an apple

Detail from The Judgement of Paris and the X-Ray Fluorescence map for the element lead. © The National Gallery, London.

A study of the painting’s cross-sections further indicated which modifications were made by Rubens or by other artists and conservators. The artist opted to use pigments including smalt for the sky and pricey ultramarine for Venus’s cloak, while later alterations were made above a layer of varnish. Rubens, for one, had made changes to the peacock’s neck and the position of Paris’s right arm as he holds out the apple; the French artist added wings to a cherub by Venus’s side, transforming it into Cupid.

Spectroscopic image of a detail of Peter Paul Rubens's The Judgement of Paris showing a crouching cherub

Detail from The Judgement of Paris and a false-color image collected by infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy. © The National Gallery, London.

In this latest treatment, the French reworkings were partially removed, but later minimally restored when the conservators decided to preserve the alterations as part of Paris‘s history. The painting was cleaned and its discolored varnish was removed and replaced to the level of the prior restoration, done in 1941 by conservator William Addison Holder. 

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens's The Judgement of Paris showing a crouching cherub

Detail from The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens. © The National Gallery, London.

Retouching was done “sympathetically” by conservator Britta New, the museum noted in a statement, such that eagle-eyed viewers might still spot Rubens’s intentions. For instance, Paris’s originally lowered arm can still be discerned from the contours of his sleeve. 

“Rubens is well known for constantly embellishing and improving his paintings as he worked,” said New, “but the added dimension of the subsequent re-working of The Judgement of Paris made the treatment of the panel a stimulating challenge.” 

In a final touch, Paris has been refitted in a 17th-century French Louis XIV frame which was re-gilded in the 19th century. The museum had purchased the frame especially for Paris, hoping to echo the major French reworking and harmonize with the other French-style frames that encase most of the Rubens works in its galleries.  

A conservator working on the Peter Paul Rubens painting, The Judgement of Paris

Conservator Britta New retouching Peter Paul Rubens’s The Judgement of Paris during the conservation treatment. © The National Gallery, London.

“We certainly could never have ethically taken the painting back to when it left Rubens’s studio. There’s too much history,” said New in a video about the conservation. “We do feel with the new information we have from our imaging that we’re in a much better position to reintegrate this image to tell the story as it is now while still allowing some of the history of the picture to be visible.” 

The Judgement of Paris has returned to view in Room 18 of the National Gallery.  

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