Art Conservation/Restoration

41680881 – trench fountain in the garden at the huntington botanical gardens in los angeles

In recent art world news, a mystery is unraveling at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (“The Huntington”) right here in the Los Angeles area (in San Marino to be exact).  It involves a sharply dressed young preteen who has been in public view throughout all his life, but whose true identity remains unclear.  This is the tale of “The Blue Boy” (circa 1770), the late artist Thomas Gainsborough’s 18th-century portrait of a rosy-cheeked young boy dapperly dressed in a blue satin suit.  His identity is unknown, but the painting is considered one of the most iconic and beloved in The Huntington’s collection.  The Huntington is about to embark on the most ambitious restoration of the nearly 250 year old masterpiece in almost a century with much of the conservation work to take place in public view in connection with a year-long exhibition set to open September 22 entitled “Project Blue Boy.”

Before the conservation process gets underway, The Huntington’s art conservator and curator, Christina O’Connell and Melinda McCurdy, respectively, are conducting extensive technical analysis on the painting.  Specifically, they are “using high-tech imaging techniques to scrutinize the painting’s surface, deconstruct the materials Gainsborough used and study the makeup of the canvas itself and its structural backing.”  This will enable them to assess the artwork’s needs and plan their conservation approach in restoration of the masterpiece.  The art detectives are also discovering some clues along the way, such as studying earlier Gainsborough sketches beneath the painting’s surface only visible with X-rays and breaking down the chemical composition of the artist’s pigments.  This will be helpful in answering broader questions about how the late artist worked and the life of the painting after it left his studio.

“The Blue Boy” painting has been conserved six times since being acquired by The Huntington in 1921.  Henry E. Huntington purchased the painting for a record-breaking sum of $728,000 at the time.  Because the masterpiece is so treasured by visitors, the museum’s priority each time was to keep disruptions to a minimum throughout its display life.  As such, previous conservations have been quick, temporary fixes primarily involving touching up worn or thinned out original paint instead of removing old varnish layers and applying new ones to maintain the work appearing bright.  With this current conservation, “The Blue Boy” will receive a “comprehensive aesthetic and structural overhaul.”

During the first few months of the upcoming exhibition, the painting will lie on a flat table or be set on an easel in a temporary conservation studio at one end of the gallery as O’Connell works on it.  An adjacent exhibition will provide history about Gainsborough and “The Blue Boy” along with details about the art conservation field.  In addition, hand tools, paint samples, a schematic of the painting’s material layers, and digital X-rays of the artwork will be on display.

The more laborious structural work of the conservation process, such as repairing the wooden stretcher of the canvas and reattaching the lining canvas, will occur privately over the following few months in the art conservator’s lab.  After which, the artwork will return to the public lab for final conservation.

In early 2020, the newly restored masterpiece will be returned to its prominent location in the Thornton Portrait Gallery at the museum.  In the interim, the art detectives will continue to study the painting throughout the entire exhibition and perhaps make some more intriguing discoveries along the way.

For further information on this innovative conservation process in public view at The Huntington, see “‘Blue Boy’ revisited:  The Huntington is saving its 18th-century masterpiece—and you get to watch,” published online by the Los Angeles Times on September 14, 2018.

 

 

In recent art world news, for a long time spanning many decades, visitors to the world-renowned tomb of King Tutankhamen (“King Tut”) in Egypt have noticed unsightly brown spots covering the wall murals in the Egyptian pharaoh’s burial chamber.  The brown spots have been the subject of much speculation.  For years, Egyptian authorities were concerned that the spots may be from living microorganisms stimulated by “humidity and the sweaty bodies of tourists.”  Scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles have recently completed an analysis of the wall murals determining that the brown spots are not alive and do not pose a threat to the tomb’s attractions.  In addition, chemical, DNA and microscopic analysis confirmed that the brown spots were microbiological in origin.

This study was part of [a] larger, multimillion-dollar, nine-year-long collaboration between the Getty and Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities designed to assess the condition of the tomb and help prevent further deterioration.  Their work has led to the creation of a new ramp and railings to better control visitor access; guidelines for maximum number of visitors to control humidity and carbon dioxide levels; and the installation of a filtered air supply and exhaust ventilation system.”

The scientists’ work also included an analysis of the flaking of paint on the wall murals lining the tomb, which was especially an issue in areas of black and red pigments.  While there has been a loss of pigment historically, the scientists have stabilized the affected areas by carefully inserting material below the flake to hold it in place—though they could not push it back due to the brittleness of the affected areas.

The conservation studies and treatment occurred without the restriction of normal visiting hours at the tomb with the exception for a one month period in 2016.  The tomb was closed that October for the temporary move of the mummy for the installation of new flooring and railings.

Because the brown spots had penetrated into the paint layer of the murals and attempts to remove them would most likely endanger the artworks, the spots will remain.

Lastly, on a related note, in celebration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the California Science Center in Los Angeles is currently featuring the world premiere of “King Tut:  Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh”.  The new exhibition claims to be the largest King Tut exhibition ever toured with over 150 authentic artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, 60 of which have never traveled outside of Egypt until now.  The exhibition runs for a limited time from March 24, 2018 through January 6, 2019.

 

 

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has added a new employee to its roster, a Weimaraner puppy named Riley.  Riley will patrol the gallery on a quest to locate insects or other pests that can damage fine art and tapestry. Unfortunately, Riley will not be visible to patrons.

It will be interesting to hear if Riley’s addition to the museum helps to preserve the artwork and prevent damage from insects and pests.

In recent news, an original Willem de Kooning known as “Woman-Ochre” was found at an estate sale by owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, a New Mexico furniture and antiques shop (the owners include Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker).

Unaware that the work was an original de Kooning that had been stolen thirty years before, the antique dealers brought the work to their shop and marketed it as a decorative piece.  However, after the painting received significant interest, the dealers researched the provenance and determined that the work was the stolen art.  As a result of their efforts, the painting has been returned to its original owner, the University of Arizona Museum of Art.  Reunited with the Museum, the work (which had been cut from its frame during the heist thirty years ago) “fits like a glove” in its original frame.

In November, the Museum will have a special presentation regarding the “Woman-Ochre” entitled Out of the Vault – Art Crime. Museum Curator Olivia Miller and Registrar Kristen Schmidt will present on the theft of the de Kooning and Meredith Savona, a Special Agent with the FBI’s Art Crime Unit, will discuss art theft.

This recent discovery demonstrates the need to conduct proper provenance research.

 

In March 2016, a US auction gallery sold an Old Master oil painting (a sketch of an old woman) for $27,000. The sale price was nearly double the high auction estimate of 15,000.  However, when the same painting was recently sold by Sotheby’s London in a July 2017 sale as an authentic Peter Paul Rubens, it achieved a hammer of £416,750 (close to $550,000 USD), which is nearly 20 times the original purchase price.

It has been reported that the appraisers at Sotheby’s London relied on certain clues to authenticate painting and attribute to Peter Paul Rubens himself. For example, Rubens had painted this old lady before, and there were examples of Rubens work with the old women at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Lichtenstein museum.  Interestingly, the work was consigned to Sotheby’s after it had been properly cleaned and restored. The restoration work revealed that the sketch had been overpainted, and this overpainting is likely the reason why the work was not properly attributed in the first place.   Importantly, this is not the first time an authentic Rubens was late discovered. In 2015, a portrait deaccessed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art was later determined to be an authentic Rubens and fetched $626,500 at auction (over 20 times its original high estimate of $30,000).

As the Washington Post reports, authentic Rubens are valuable – even if they are mere sketches and not final oil portraits. Rubens value has increased. For example, last year a Rubens painting, Lot and his Daughters, set a new record for an Old Masters sale fetching £44.8 million ($58.1 million USD).

Unfortunately, the value and popularity of Rubens make his Old Master works a prime target for forgery. This heightened concern can move an appraiser to conservatively attribute paintings to “school/student/studio of” an Old Master rather than the Old Master himself.  This recent Rubens auction sale demonstrates that sometimes the caveat emptor/buyer beware mantra can benefit the buyer in more ways than one. In this case, taking the extra step to invest in restoration and cleaning paid off exponentially for the original auction buyer.

A Jackson Pollock painting possibly worth over $15 Million was found in a garage in Arizona among other knick-knacks and memorabilia. The painting was located because the homeowner was downsizing and moving to a retirement facility. During the move, a friend spotted a signed L.A. Lakers poster believed to be of value, which prompted review of other items in the garage. The sports poster was determined to be only worth $300 (actually not a bad value for a modern-day poster, which generally does not retain value). In contrast to the poster, the Pollack was taken back to the auction gallery for further examination. After feverishly researching the provenance in an effort to determine how the Pollack could end up in Arizona (where regional southwestern art is king), the appraiser/auctioneer involved, Josh Levin of J. Levine Auction & Appraisal, found a link from the Arizona owner to his half-sister, Jenifer Gordon Cosgriff, who was a New York Socialite.  After tireless research, it has been determined that the painting is a missing Pollack gouache. In regard to authentication, the auction gallery indicates that the forensic report states that “no pigments or binding media introduced in the late 1950s and 1960s have been detected.” Reports indicate that since  the painting was removed from storage it has been restored.  The painting will go to the auction block next week in Scottsdale, AZ with a reported starting bid of $5 Million.

As recently reported by ArtNews, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper (1495-1498), one of the world’s most famous paintings, will be protected by an “advanced air filtration system” backed by Eataly that is expected to extend the life of the work for 500 years beginning in 2019.

To save this important piece of Italian heritage, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism designed an air-filtration system in collaboration with top Italian research institutes (ISCR, CNR, Polytechnic Institute of Milan, and the University of Milano Bicocca).  The cutting-edge system will filter in approximately 10,000 cubic meters of clean air into the convent every day (compared to the current 3,500 cubic meters), breathing five centuries of life into The Last Supper and allowing many more visitors to admire it.”

The impetus behind the move to save The Last Supper is that the famed work is deteriorating quickly, primarily due to the “factors of time, humidity, wartime bombs, and the fact that it was once housed in a prison.”  Without taking any action to save this significant work, the masterpiece may “one day be destroyed beyond repair.”

Thanks to Eataly’s efforts to save one of the world’s greatest masterpieces, no longer will The Last Supper “disappear more each day and with each visitor’s microscopic dust.”

 

U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, will host a panel discussion at the JAMES A. MICHENER ART MUSEUM in Doylestown, PA on “Effectively Managing A Fine Art Collection” on May 17, 2017 from 5:30 P.M. to 7:30 P.M.

The panel will be hosted by ERIC J. ABEL, Private Client Advisor at U.S. Trust and feature EVAN BEARD, National Art Services Executive, U.S. Trust; RAMSAY H. SLUGG, National Wealth Planning Strategist, U.S. Trust; and CINDY CHARLESTON-ROSENBERG, Founder and President, Art Appraisal Firm, LLC. The panelists will provide updates on trends in the art industry, the importance of appraisals and proper planning for collections, and how to address issues related to conservation and restoration of fine art.

The event is by invitation only. Interested parties should contact Eric Abel at 610-567-4735 or at eric.abel@ustrust.com.

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, PA 18901. This event is a great opportunity to learn about art connoisseurship while enjoying the Michener Art Museum and its wonderful collection of Bucks County gems.

This week’s blog post is a nice mix of science and art, which are two of my favorite subject areas.  An exciting discovery by a team of researchers at the Australian Synchrotron led to the recovery of an underlying portrait hidden upside down below Edgar Degas’s painting, “Portrait of a Woman”, which hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia.

Since the 1920s, the oil paints in Degas’s portrait of the anonymous woman in “Portrait of a Woman” (c. 1876-1880) have been gradually fading over time, revealing a possible hidden portrait underneath.

Up until now, previous attempts to capture the underlying image hidden in “Portrait of a Woman” using conventional X-ray and infrared techniques have only showed a shadowy outline of another woman.

To achieve a high-resolution image of the underlying portrait, the researchers used a synchrotron, which is a type of particle accelerator.  As sources of extremely high-energy light, synchrotrons work by directing such light (a million times brighter than the sun) into an X-ray beam (one tenth the diameter of a human hair).  At the Australian Synchrotron, the researchers used this intense X-ray beam to scan Degas’s painting via a method known as “X-ray fluorescence” (“XRF”).  Using this method, the painting is analyzed literally point by point by a unique detector in order to identify the chemical signatures of the various paint elements on a fine scale.

The team of researchers viewed an elemental map of the underlying hidden portrait as it emerged on a computer monitor over a 30-hour period.  The hidden portrait is believed to be of model Emma Dobigny, who Degas had a special fondness for as suggested by old letters from Degas.

The researchers’ work was not over just yet.  Following the synchrotron scan, the researchers had months of data interpretation ahead having been left with a terabyte of X-ray data and a black-and-white map of the underlying portrait. During this time, the researchers wrote software so that different metal elements known to be present in different paint colors could be converted into a plausible color reconstruction of the painting.

In addition to the revealing of a lost painting, this project also provides key information about Degas’s painting techniques, which could be helpful in the identification of forgeries.  This recent project using XRF technology essentially provides an entirely new level of information about Degas’s artistic process.

In case you may be wondering, it was common practice for artists at the time to paint over old canvasses.

For images of the color reconstruction of the lost painting using XRF technology see Finding Degas’s Lost Portrait With a Particle Accelerator published by the New York Times on August 4, 2016.

For detailed information on the researchers’ work see A Hidden Portrait By Edgar Degas published on nature.com on August 4, 2016.

 

The Eames House
© Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)

This week’s blog post is not strictly art, but ties in nicely to the architecture tour I took this past weekend of The Eames House, a national historical landmark of mid-20th century modern architecture, in Pacific Palisades, California.  Also known as Case Study House No. 8 of Arts & Architecture magazine’s (now defunct) The Case Study House Program, The Eames House was one of about 24 homes built under the program, which ran intermittently from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s.

In launching the program, the magazine’s editor posed a challenge to the architecture community in which it was announced that the magazine would be the client for a series of homes designed to express man’s life in the modern world post World War II.  According to the Eames Foundation website, the case study homes were to “be built and furnished using materials and techniques derived from the experiences of [World War II]” and “[e]ach home would be for a real or hypothetical client taking into consideration their particular housing needs.”

The Eames House was constructed in 1949 and served as the home and studio of Charles Ormond Eames, Jr and Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Eames during their lifetimes.  Charles and Ray Eames were husband and wife American designers recognized for having made significant historical contributions to the development of modern architecture and furniture.  The couple also worked in the fields of industrial and graphic design, fine art and film.

Charles and Ray Eames
© Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)

The Eames House has become known as an iconic structure toured by people from all over the world.  Although my tour was limited to the exterior only, I was able to view the interior of the main floor level through open doors and the many windows.  What is particularly fascinating is that the interior, its art objects and its collections are said to remain very much the way they were during the couple’s lifetimes.  The house enabled the creative couple to live in a space where “work, play, life, and nature co-existed.”

In 2011, the contents of the Eames’ living room, among which included many art objects, were reassembled at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a highlight of the exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way”.  After the exhibition closed, the contents were returned to the house and were arranged back in place as if they had never been moved from the house.

Stepping onto the eucalyptus tree-lined property tucked away off a residential street (which also includes nearby Case Study House Nos. 9  (Eames and Saarinen) and 20 (Neutra), the latter of which is currently on the market for nearly $15 million), one is immediately transported to the mid-20th century with the colorful Eames House perched above the meadow and expansive ocean views (if no fog) from the far end of the property.  I can just imagine both Charles and Ray Eames busily working away in their studio on various creative endeavors and enjoying life among nature during their active years.

The Eames House is operated by the Eames Foundation established in 2004 and run in part by Charles and Ray Eames’ grandchildren. The foundation has overseen the conservation of The Eames House and has preserved Charles and Ray Eames’ vast collections and decor.  The house was left mostly untouched after the Eames had passed away. The Eames Foundation uses the studio today for its continuing work in preserving, protecting and maintaining the Eames House, and providing educational experiences that celebrate the legacy of Charles and Ray Eames.

For further information on The Eames House and the conservation of same as well as the Eames’ work, visit a discussion of the history of the Eames House, information on its preservation and restoration, and discover the work of the Eames Office.