Auguste Rodin, Jean d’Aire (Étude de nu pour les Bourgeois de Calais), 1887, Kunsthaus Zürich, permanent loan of the Canton of Zurich, 1949. Signature of Auguste Rodin on the baseplate prior to restoration.

Rodin made large nude studies in preparation for the individual figures. The facial expressions and gestures symbolizing desperation and the emphasis on the enlarged hands and feet give the work expressionistic features.

Surface destroyed

The sculpture of Jean d’Aire was displayed outside the Kunsthaus in front of the old water lily gallery for decades. Much of its surface was destroyed by exposure to the elements. This caused extensive loss of material and the accumulation of a hard sinter layer of plaster and copper corrosion products.

The original patina has been almost entirely lost, save for a very small number of protected areas. It is believed that it had a dark to olive brown sheen. Prior to restoration, however, the surface was matte and dull. Vertical streaking caused by rivulets of water disfigured the body and made it more difficult to read the modelling. The patina also exhibited rusty discolouration on horizontal surfaces.

Restoration and conservation

Loss of the original patina by environmental action
Reddish-brown corrosion
None of the original surface remains on the discoloured, light-green areas.
Unsightly water streaks were retouched and the hand was subjected to a test waxing roughly up to the elbow in order to gauge the degree of darkening of the surface.
The test waxing clearly shows that the impression of depth is enhanced.
All the streaking was retouched after the encrustations and corrosion had been removed. The surface still looks dull and matte and lacks definition.
The application of cold wax as a protective layer also restores the work’s sheen, making it easier to appreciate its full expressive power.

Expressive power can now be appreciated again

In addition to consolidation and conservation of the surface, the main measures involved restoration: cleaning the surface, removing accretions and deposits and, in particular, retouching the streaks and applying protective wax.

Coating with hot wax creates a much darker surface with an even sheen. However, this method was not used with ‘Jean d’Aire’, not least because it is unnecessary from a conservation perspective in the less exposed areas. Cold wax coating, by contrast, preserved traces of the sculpture’s time on display outdoors in a way that reflects its statement and history. The work can still be appreciated as a heavily weathered open-air exhibit but has now regained its full expressive power.

« The nature of the retouching and wax conservation has settled and harmonized the surface and restored the work’s full expressive power. » — Rolf Fritschi, sculpture restorer
« The process of deciding which method to use, involving the restoration department, director and collection curator, was fascinating but required some extensive discussions. » — Rolf Fritschi, sculpture restorer
« What I like about the approach we adopted is that the traces of exposure to the elements have not been completely removed, so that the sculpture’s history as an outdoor exhibit is still visible. » — Rolf Fritschi, sculpture restorer

The restoration of ‘Jean d’Aire’ marks the conclusion of the measures to preserve the large-format sculptures by Auguste Rodin that were begun 15 years ago. ‘Jean d’Aire’ occupies a prominent place in the ‘Matisse – Metamorphoses’ exhibition in the Bührle gallery from 30 August to 8 December.

Restorer: Rolf Fritschi
Project period: February – May 2019
Supported by: Bank of America Art Conservation Project