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Rubens in LA


Two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens are in Los Angeles right now undergoing conservation treatment. We talked to Gwen Borms, the head of our conservation studio, about the ins and outs of long-distance conservation.

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Portret van Gwen Borms

Two works by Rubens from the KMSKA collection recently travelled to LA for the Rubens – Picturing Antiquity exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. COVID-19 had other ideas, however, and the Getty was forced to postpone its prestigious Rubens exhibition for a year. Did the paintings have to come home early, then? Fortunately not! During their extended stay, the two panels are being treated at the renowned American museum’s conservation studio. Having waved them off on their journey, Gwen Borms talks to us here about the ins and outs of long-distance conservation.

Schilderijen Heilige drievuldigheid en Jan-Gaspard Gevartius van Peter Paul Rubens
Two works by Rubens have travelled to LA Left: Holy Trinity – Right: Jan Gaspard Gevartius

While we were all safely at home, the Holy Trinity and the Portrait of Jan Gaspard Gevartius crossed the Atlantic. The two oil paintings on panel need conservation treatment for a variety of reasons.


Kari Rayner is taking care of the Gevartius portrait, while Devi Ormond will conserve the Holy Trinity. The conservators will be supported and advised throughout by the Getty Museum’s Senior Curator Ulrich Birkmaier.



Jan-Gaspard Gevartius

What’s up with this portrait? Find out which issues the conservator is tackling in Los Angeles.

Do we often send our works to other museums for conservation?

Gwen Borms: ‘I wouldn’t say often. Most conservation work is obviously carried out in our own studio, which is working flat out. I’d say we have about one or two works a year treated at other institutions. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, for instance, was responsible for conserving our Venus Frigida – another work by Rubens. And the Mauritshuis in The Hague recently restored Jan Steen’s Wedding Party for us. This isn’t the first time we’ve collaborated with the Getty, by the way: their studio previously conserved two panels by Gerard David.’

Win-win situation

Why choose another museum’s conservation studio for these projects?

Gwen Borms: ‘One of the main reasons is the exchange of knowledge. It’s a good way of keeping up with the latest developments in the field. The conservation of artworks is evolving all the time so it’s important to keep abreast of what’s going on internationally. In this particular case, the Getty is also funding the entire treatment, including the transport costs. In return, one of the works is being loaned to the exhibition they’re organizing. So it’s a win-win situation.’

Holy Trinity

Why did this Rubens panel require conservation? We list the various issues.

So everybody benefits! Or are there also drawbacks to external conservation?

Gwen Borms: ‘It’s obviously a bit harder to monitor a project like this from our end. The distance means we can’t physically examine the works on a regular basis. It means a huge amount of visual material has to be sent back and forth, which makes decision-making more complex and slower.’

How can you control what happens in LA from here?

Gwen Borms: ‘We’re in regular digital consultation with the conservators, who share everything with us. And we do the same: we make all the information, archive documents and literature available to each other. Before we dispatched the works, we thoroughly studied and photographed them. They also received preliminary conservation treatment here to ensure they could be safely transported to America.’

The conservation of artworks is evolving all the time so it’s important to keep abreast of what’s going on internationally.

Gwen Borms

What kind of things do you discuss during your digital consultation?

Gwen Borms: ‘The condition of the works and what techniques and materials might be used during their treatment. We also discuss the results of the research carried out before conservation and work together to find solutions to physical and technical issues. The panel with the Portrait of Jan Gaspar Gevartius is very fragile, for instance, with several cracks along the joints. Before they can be repaired, we need to find out what caused them.’

If it hadn’t been for Covid-19, would you have gone to Los Angeles to follow the process more closely?

Gwen Borms: ‘I’d have loved to! (laughs).’

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