Simon Hantai completed Le Manteau de la Vierge in 1961 using his signature style, the “pliage” technique. Between 1960 and 1962, the artist experimented with this method, which involved folding the canvas and applying paint before stretching it in order to create an effect of random color encrustations and unpredictable blank areas. He developed this abstract style in France, after breaking with the surrealist movement, but he remained staunchly attached to the avant-garde movement, seeking to reinvent painting. He described his iconic procedure stating,
“…you could fill the folded canvas without knowing where the edge was. You don’t know where things stop. You could even go further, and paint with your eyes closed.”
As a young child, Hantai was temporarily blind, which according to the artist, influenced his creative process when devising this technique. The Franco-Hungarian painter grew up in a small, traditional rural village in Hungary steeped in its strong Catholic beliefs. In fact, his faith is apparent in this piece and many of the other artworks he created during his lifetime. At the peak of his career, he represented France at the 1982 Venice Biennale, but promptly retired from the art world following the exhibition in order to pursue a life of isolation. He continually turned down different commissions and invitations from various world-renowned museums until his death in 2008.
This work is one of the twenty-seven pieces in the Mariales series. The names of the series and the Vatican Museums’ painting itself are a religious allusion referring to the Virgin Mary’s protective mantle featured in many medieval and renaissance works. This image, like the others in the series, almost looks like a stained glass window, highlighting the devout nuance. The blue tones used in this piece in particular are especially stunning. Its sheer size, in addition to endless creases, is captivating, making viewers feel like they themselves are enveloped by the Virgin Mary’s mantle. Along with the artist’s specific technique, the spirituality and mystery present in Hantai’s oeuvre make it some of the most inspiring and significant art of the late 20th century.
Le Manteau de la Vierge was originally displayed in the Collection of Contemporary Art on a frame smaller than the canvas size for lack of sufficient space. The difficulty in transporting the piece became evident in 2004, when it needed to be moved for an exhibit at the French Academy, Villa Medici in Rome. To address these two issues, restorers created a new custom-made aluminum frame and steel stretcher with the ability to fold, so that the work could be moved more easily and would be properly supported by a correctly sized frame. Without altering the piece, restorers concocted a solution to protect the folded canvas from over bending and causing strain. These methods dramatically decreased the risk of damage, and it is now possible to fold the work to almost half its size for ease of transportation. After the aforementioned exhibition, the difficult, irregular surface was retouched; the flaking paint layer was consolidated and the entire piece was dusted. The canvas perimeter was also hemmed to prevent future fraying. The restoration procedure, directed by Francesca Persegati of the Paintings Laboratory, was completed in 2017.