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.