Museum of Fine Arts

“2iPM009,” from the series Pinturas Móviles, by Magdalena Fernández, 2009

Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Nov. 19, 2015

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Behind the scenes at major art museums, conservators are hard at work, keeping masterpieces looking their best. Their methods are meticulous — and sometimes surprising.

The painting conservation studio at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is filled with priceless works sitting on row after row of tall wooden easels, or lying on big, white-topped worktables.

The studio is where I first met Senior Conservator Ann Hoenigswald years ago as she was fixing the sky on one of Claude Monet’s impressions of the Rouen Cathedral in France. Bits of paint had flaked off over time, and Hoenigswald was carefully mixing her blue to match the old master’s. Seeing the painting outside of its fancy frame, it felt like being inside the artist’s studio. (I greatly wanted to try my hand at filling in some tiny bare spot in Money’s sky, which had once been covered by paint. Of course, the thoroughly professional Hoenigswald politely refused to hand over her brush.)

Conservators must take classes in studio art, art history and chemistry. Sometimes guidance comes from artists themselves. For example, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, asking for specific shades of paint — Prussian Blue, Ultramarine, Geranium Lake. Painters in earlier centuries rarely left such clues.

With Chemistry And Care, Conservators Keep Masterpieces Looking Their Best

Photos: Liam James Doyle/NPR

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
“Diogenes” (1882)
Oil on canvas
Pre-Raphaelite
Located in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, The Domain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Diogenes was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynic philosophy, he was known as Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes is also known for an interaction he had with Alexander the Great. Alexander, upon meeting Diogenes while he was relaxing in the morning sun, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”