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Mysteries Brought to Light at Lunder's Conservation Clinic
September 10, 2009

Conservation Lab

Amber Kerr-Allison discusses Arline and Malcolm Martin's painting at the Lunder Conservation Center Conservation Clinic.

Say you bought a painting from a London junk store fifty years ago. It's been hanging in your house all this time. You think it might be an old Dutch-period painting, and you think it's in good condition, but you aren’t sure. What would you do? You could wait for the Antiques Roadshow to come to your town. Or you could make a personal appointment with our conservators during one of our monthly Lunder Conservation Center Conservation Clinics. That's what Arline and Malcolm Martin did.

Recently the Martins brought in their lucky find to show Amber Kerr-Allison, Kress Fellow in Paintings Conservation, and Martin Kotler, Frame Conservator. "Conservation," Kerr-Allison said, "is like a balanced three-legged stool with strong legs in science, art history, and studio arts. In order to examine a painting like this and gather information about its condition, age, and history, all three factors must be in equal play."

At our Conservation Clinics conservators offer an initial evaluation of your artwork based on various imaging techniques, whetting your appetite for learning more. They also discuss ways for you to care for your painting, print, object, or frame and offer guidelines for selecting outside conservators who can answer detailed questions about the artwork's style, age, and condition.

Kerr-Allison set the painting on an easel to examine it closely under normal light. The canvas had an irregular weave pattern and appeared to be hand loomed, suggesting its age. The Martins learned their work was painted in the style of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch artists, as they had assumed. The piece was in stable condition with minor retouching from a restoration the couple had done thirty years ago.

Looking at the back of the canvas, Kerr-Allison studied its weave. "Sometimes," she told the Martins, "a painting has been lined to a new fabric to give it structural support." A lining is a new piece of fabric attached to the back of a canvas to provide additional protection. This didn't appear to be the case. "Have you taken the painting out of the frame?" she asked. They hadn't. Looking at the tacking edges could reveal if the tacks were in their original holes. If there were evidence of older tack holes, the painting probably had been restretched in the past. Each observation chipped away at the mystery of the painting's history and condition.

Kerr-Allison then examined the painted surface under ultraviolet illumination. UV illumination can identify areas of retouching and determine types of varnish. The Martins could see fluorescing layers of varnish, old restorations, and paint. There were at least two different varnishes: an old natural resin and a synthetic layer. The piece's protective varnish had been touched up in the recent past. But these old restorations and varnish layers were discoloring the image. The painting was losing its depth, and the overall color balance was shifting.

Looking closely at one part of the painting, Kotler noticed what looked like phantom seated figures emerging beneath the paint layers. Viewing the piece with another imaging technology, an infrared camera, which penetrates layers of paint, could reveal an underdrawing. Studying the work with infrared showed the seated figures resembled a mother holding a child. The artist had chosen to leave out these early figures in the finished painting. The change in composition suggested the painting was originally conceived and not a copy of an existing painting (copies don't show compositional changes). The sleuthing contributed more pieces to the puzzle.

Then Kerr-Allison and Kotler placed the painting under a surgical microscope to search for a signature, but found none, which wasn't unusual for a painting of this period. They also took a closer look at the figures in the underpainting.

Then Kotler began to examine the painting's frame and back. He told the Martins that while the frame would adequately protect the front and sides of their painting, aesthetically it was wrong for the piece. And he showed them frames in styles that would be more suitable for their work. He also discovered the piece was unprotected on the back and needed a backingboard and new hanging hardware.

Unlike the Antiques Roadshow, the Martins' session didn't end with the TV show's typical "reveal" ("So, how much do you think this is worth?"). Our conservators don't assess value for works of art. Kerr-Allison instead gave the Martins a list of appraisers, information on caring for their art, and reference materials from the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. In addition, she gave them guidelines for selecting a conservator should the Martins want to conserve the piece and learn specific details about its style and age.

If you have a piece of art you've been wondering about, you might start by checking American Art's step-by-step guide to Researching Your Art. If you’d like someone to give you an initial evaluation, contact the Lunder Conservation Center for an appointment to show it to our conservators (next clinic is October 7). They may not be as famous as the Roadshow's Keno twins, but they sure know their stuff!

Posted by Jeff on September 10, 2009 in American Art Everywhere, Conservation at American Art


I do not have any old works that would benefit from this service. I do, however receive emails constantly from people interested in me being able to determine who painted a piece or my opinion on the value. Does the museum do this via email also or would they need to see the work in person?

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