Preserving History – Painting Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Painting Conservation with The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since 1832 Winsor & Newton has been providing the highest quality colours to the world’s finest artists. Our commitment to quality and innovation is just one part of our heritage. We strive to not only nurture creativity and artistic innovation but we are also dedicated to supporting art education and the preservation of fine art. As part of this commitment, Winsor & Newton is very proud to support painting conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We would like to provide some background on this conservation project in particular:

In 2019, The Met received a transformative donation from James Kung Wei Li and his family of ten paintings from the colonial Andes. These artworks were created by prolific indigenous artists, who devised a pictorial language that was tied to their Andean identity. This foundational gift will be the point of departure from which to explore a more inclusive view of painting traditions in Latin America at the Museum.

The paintings were exhibited at The Met in advance of planned conservation. As they undergo treatment, the Museum encourages visitors to see the progress and learn from the findings. When the paintings arrived at The Met’s conservation studio, it became apparent that they would benefit from different levels of conservation treatment. In the past, several of the paintings underwent significant restorations by different hands. Structural damages, such as tears and punctures, were addressed by linings, a process in which a new canvas is adhered to the back of a painting. On the front, paint losses consistent with harsh cleaning were retouched broadly, often covering large areas of intact original paint. These interventions have not fared well with time. In some cases, the retouching shifted in colour, while degraded varnish layers turned yellow and turbid, distorting the tonal range of the bright compositions.

Emblem of Folly, a painting that had several abrasions masked by thick layers of overpaint, yellowed varnish, and grime, was the first to receive major conservation work at the Met. Deformations in the lined canvas were reduced, overpaint and varnish were removed, and the abrasions were carefully retouched.

This ongoing project includes the analytical and technical study of the paintings, which will shine a light on the genius of indigenous artists. With more devoted studies championing native skill and ingenuity, the communities that have a cultural connection to these artworks can see their legacy understood and valued globally.

Instagram: @metpaintingsconservation


Painting the Andes


We are also excited to showcase the following Conservation Stories video to give you a closer look at the process. In this video, José Luis Lazarte discusses his approach to the study and restoration of Andean colonial paintings as Assistant Conservator in the Department of Paintings Conservation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He focuses on Emblem of Folly, a charming 18th-century oil on canvas from Cuzco. He bridges conservation methods, historic materials and techniques with art history and intercultural exchange, past and present. José received a Master’s in Science from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2016.


Recently, Jimmy Leslie, the Winsor & Newton North American Resident Artist had the opportunity to speak with Michael Gallagher, the Sherman Fairchild Chair of Paintings Conservation at The Met. You can read their wonderful discussion about best practices and some of the many challenges of painting conservation below.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


How do you determine whether paintings are able to travel or not?


It’s a complicated process. There are a few paintings which, because of their structure, vulnerability and maybe also their status we say, “This is a picture we never lend.” But this doesn’t occur often. Everything else is a sort of risk assessment. You look first and foremost at the object and ask: “How vulnerable is this? Is it on canvas? Is it a panel? What’s its size? Does it have a history of issues when it has been subjected to fluctuations such as humidity or movement?” But also, what is the seriousness of intent here? Is this a celebrity picture in an exhibition that doesn’t have a serious intent or is this going to be the definitive show of a generation on the topic, and the inclusion of this particular work an essential part? Sometimes we bend over backwards because something is so crucial to the argument.

What’s also important is the scale. If you’ve got a huge crate that needs thoughtful handling, the risk goes up, as you are relying on very experienced oversight at the airport and at the borrowing institution. With modern and contemporary work, some pieces are inherently vulnerable. On the other hand, I’ve always taken the view that if we acquire contemporary art, it’s maybe not in the artist’s best interest to simply say that it’s coming to the museum and never going anywhere again. Different context makes people see a work in a different way. So, it’s finding that balance of responsibility to the object and its place as an artwork in the continuum of art history, and critical evaluation and appreciation. Good conservators need to keep all of this in balance.


Before beginning a conservation, do you consider the provenance of the painting? How would you go about doing so?


Yes. The more knowledge you have about paintings on all levels, the more helpful it is. We have knowledge of provenance in the records, and sometimes we have knowledge of previous treatments. Part of the art historian’s remit is to try and flesh out the provenance. Some objects have very little to go on, while others are incredibly well documented. It’s an ongoing process. From a conservation point of view, sometimes understanding the provenance – particularly treatment history – can explain certain issues. If something has been treated multiple times, chances are it has been compromised.

For example, Titian’s paintings are sometimes compromised because he frequently painted on canvas using a thin gesso ground that can darken over time and is vulnerable to impregnation of lining adhesives or injudicious aqueous cleaning methods. Celebrity objects tend to get a lot of attention, and Titian never stopped being a celebrity! To come across a painting you would deem to be in superb condition is, therefore, more difficult with an artist like this - especially with works that have changed hands frequently. Knowing all this helps guide both the art historian and the conservator.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


You mentioned that frequently you encounter multiple layers of varnish. Would that be at a certain period when it was a way to clean it up or make it shine? Would this have been considered a quick fix at the time?


It’s not an illegitimate approach – especially with natural resin varnishes. If you think of a painting that is conserved, chances are that the varnish will probably have sunk 50 years later. Applying a very thin fresh varnish will lift everything a little. It’s not even necessarily about gloss, it just improves saturation. The slightly problematic thing that did happen was that synthetic varnishes were applied to paintings, which then aged in a different way from the natural resins beneath. Those combinations could have unfortunate visual effects. At one point, Portrait of a Man by Velazquez - I’m sure it’s a self-portrait, I’m utterly convinced – was described as having a green background, but that was just the result of multiple layers of discoloured varnish distorting the original colour. I think it’s always a reminder of how not understanding condition issues can really derail the accurate appraisal of quality. The knowledge required to judge a picture accurately is often one hundred per cent linked with its physical reality.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


When you’re conserving a work of art, do you consult other conservators who have worked on other pieces of art by that same artist because they have some sort of history?


There are certain treatments that are our bread and butter – they’re very straightforward. Not everything is a huge challenge or mystery. Then there are times when something definitely requires consultation: if I haven’t treated this type of painting before, why wouldn’t I talk to someone who has? For example, you would be very foolish, if you had a Courbet in front of you and you’d never worked on or really looked hard at a Courbet before, not to do your homework. His technique frequently involves scraping away paint from the canvas surface, but sometimes really thin areas have been badly cleaned and they can appear the same – one effect is intentional the other is not. So, navigating the artist’s intention against what might be later change or damage is really important. And just because you understand what happened doesn’t mean you can legitimately intervene. If a colour has changed people assume that we put it back, but we don’t. If a green has turned to brown through oxidation, or if a red lake is faded to a light pink, we don’t replace that. Having the knowledge of the change or deterioration isn’t always an invitation to do something about it.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Is there a difference between conservation and restoration?


I tend to refer to my retouching as restoration because it is when I make judgments about compensating for damage or loss. To me, conserving is preserving what is already there. But it is one of those awkward things of tripping over language. In the USA conservators tend not to like the terms restoration or restorer because they have associations with backyard practices and lack of scientific training. It is a bit like the difference between referring to the room where you work as a studio or a lab. I’ve always referred to it as a studio, whereas some people like the objective, scientific-sounding ‘lab’.


With a living artist, would it be beneficial to have a conversation with them if they were willing?


Oh yes, and that happens. What we generally can’t do is let an artist actually intervene in terms of treatment or later intervention since works are acquired as representative of a certain moment in an artist’s career trajectory. However, it is very enlightening to hear an artist’s viewpoint on issues of deterioration, change and preservation, always bearing in mind that these can change over time.

It is not unusual for young artists to be less interested in those issues but that can shift as they get older and begin to think about legacy. I’ve always taken the view that one shouldn’t be prescriptive to an artist about what materials should be or shouldn’t be used. Now, with the internet, there are websites where people share experiences with materials and so on. There’s easy access to a lot of technical information. I would say to an art student that it’s good to know your craft, and there’s never been an easier time to access videos on techniques such as how to properly stretch a canvas.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Do you find that the quest for that magical Old Master formula was maybe not so much a certain medium but really a skill that an artist may have had with very simple means?


Exactly - there never was a magic formula. It was just a rigor and brilliance derived through training to use simple materials very well. And that brilliance isn’t just limited to materials. The fact is, photography owes so much to the aesthetics of paintings. The optimum way to light a face – artists got that first. You put somebody in one kind of lighting and their features are totally distorted by heavy shadows, or you put them in facing light and it washes everything out. Artists worked that out and photographers followed suit. If they chose to distort it for intentional effect then that was fine, but the subtlety and genius of creative lighting began with people using pencils and brushes.


We talked about varnish a bit. What are your feelings on varnish? Do you recommend a painting be varnished to protect it for the future? Is that an aesthetic choice?


On the one side, there is the painting conservation aspect, and this is about the intended original appearance of the work. There are paintings that require a saturated surface as it was always part of the aesthetic. However, I personally don’t think that the high gloss varnish that may have been put on a picture several hundred years ago is necessarily a good idea now, given that the paint surface has aged and changed – a slick, glossy first impression on a seventeenth-century painting, can be very unappealing. But you still need that saturation, so it’s about degrees of subtlety. If you put a thick synthetic varnish on an Old Master painting and it looks sparkly and glistening, I find that pretty repellent.

For the painter today, it is a personal decision: do I prefer a matte finish; do I want to create localised increases in saturation, say where certain colours have dropped more; do I want a uniform surface? Again, there has to be an aesthetic decision – ask yourself why am I doing this, and do I like the appearance?

There are horrific videos that I see of people varnishing pictures – I wonder whether they simply do it for internet drama – in which they are pouring varnish on to the painting and spreading it out like syrup, and I think, are you kidding me? There is a correct way to varnish, and that isn’t it! It is like the difference between good food and bad food. You can have different tastes in food, but there are things that are just badly cooked. If you’re going to varnish, learn how to do it properly. If you varnish too early or if the paint layers are extremely thin, or perhaps employed very diluted paint, you will never get that varnish off safely. If you want it slick, be my guest, but don’t do it because you don’t know any other way. It might not matter to you right now, but it matters for the future.


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