Conservation of Paintings

– In many ways the artists’ materials are what the musical notes are for a composer. The artist brings together a
disparate group of materials, assembles them into a composition, and what we see of that
composition is on the canvas. And just the same way
that a conductor’s job is to take this set of notes and make some sense of the unruly orchestra, a restorer’s job is to
take the set of materials which has gone through a
lot of transformations, since it was applied by the artist, and make some sense of it. As conservators we have a variety of tools that have been adapted
to give us clues about what the artist may have had in mind when he was creating a particular image. This is the Farewell of
Telemachus and Eucharis, which was painted by
Jacques-Louis David in 1818 when he was working in exile in Brussels. We’re looking at a detail of the painting with a technique called
infrared reflectography, which involves taking a
camera that has been equipped with an infrared sensitive tube, and seeing the reflective
abilities of different materials, different pigments in
the infrared light range. If we take a close look at
this area of the painting, when we look at it with
infrared, what we see is that David went to the trouble to
block in the figure in the nude underneath the drapery, and
then to literally clothe him. David was trained as an academic painter. Academic painters in France were trained from a very young age to
draw and study the nude. And one of the reasons you do that is so that you can get
a real sense of form, not just the surface of the skin, but the bone and the
muscle that’s underneath. When you walk through the galleries, there’re a couple of things
that you’re not aware of. One is the fact that the
picture has a history. It has a history from the
time that it left the easel, when all sorts of things
began to happen to it. This is a painting by early 19th Century German painter named
Caspar David Friedrich, who’s an extremely rare
artist in this country. When I first saw the painting
at the auction house, it was in a somewhat disheveled state. It had fairly discolored
runners on the surface, and more importantly it had a large hole in this part of the painting. What I did do, was to repair
the hole from the back, glue some new pieces of fabric just to the edges of the painting, which allowed me to re-stretch
it onto the stretcher. And then I prepared the stretcher with, yet another piece of fabric, and then the whole package
was put back together, so that from the front you really can’t tell that anything has happened. So the challenge in the
restoration was to take care of the structural anomalies,
this hole in the sky, but to do the work in such a way that my presence would be
as invisible as possible, so that all that was left in the end was the artist’s voice
speaking to you directly. We have been able to look at this painting with infrared reflectography,
and underneath the surface is an extraordinarily elaborate plan. These trees in the distance, which have a kind of misty
quality, were laid in, in very elaborate, precise detail, and then the paint actually
played the role of the mist. Imagine a late afternoon, early evening when the mist begins to
rise from the fields. Friedrich literally laid in the mist, laid in the paint the same way that the mist would have
traveled into the field. and that’s one of the reasons
that this illusion of a tree in the mist in the distance,
compared to the clarity of the tree in the
foreground is so successful. Because he’s used the
paint almost to imitate the natural progression of the atmosphere. What appears to be, the essence
of simplicity and purity is often the result of a tremendous wrestle and struggle with materials. Paint is a very unruly and
difficult substance to handle, and it’s very hard to make
it do what you want it to do. And one of the reasons that
artists are such geniuses is because they’re able
to take a virtually unmanageable material
and make sense of it, make it speak, make it say something and reflect some inner beliefs
and feelings that they have. And that’s a tremendous
skill and talent and gift, which is why we appreciate
these things today.

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