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Paintings Are Dirtier Than You Thought

Cleaning the gunk off Van Gogh.

The famous paintings that hang in art museums across the world always look dazzling, and part of that is thanks to art conservation. To the untrained eye, a painting in a museum might not look dirty, but get up close and you may start to notice some gunk. Art conservators work hard to clean and restore paintings, thereby keeping them in good condition so they can be enjoyed for generations to come.

This video from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston takes us behind the scenes of the conservation work necessary to restore Vincent van Gogh’s “Houses at Auvers.” According to Lydia Vagts, Cunningham associate conservator of paintings, the “gunk” that she’s cleaning off this Van Gogh comes from previous cleanings, and includes varnish residues, wax residues, and cotton fibers. All this dirty stuff can obscure the fine detail that Van Gogh employs in his work. Watch Vagts clean the surface of this work of art with careful precision to get it looking good as new.