Conserving Canvas: María Luisa Pacheco’s “Stoic Figure”

In the fall of 2019, the DMA was awarded a Conserving Canvas grant from the Getty Foundation. The aim of the grant was to broaden the knowledge base around specialized conservation techniques and train participants in these techniques. Specifically, the project focused on a technique known as “Heiber thread-by-thread tear mending.” With this technique, torn paintings can be mended locally by, as the name suggests, re-weaving the torn area one thread at a time. The project was led by the DMA, which specializes in this tear-mending technique. Grant participant Luciana Feld, a colleague from Buenos Aires, Argentina, joined me in the Conservation Studio to collaborate and develop her skill in this technique for the duration of the project.

The grant began with a gathering of experts and the participant at the DMA. These experts included Petra Demuth (Cologne, Germany), Carolyn Tomkiewicz (New York City), and Robert Proctor (Houston, Texas). This melding of minds proved productive, allowing experts to discuss recent projects and enhancements in Heiber tear mending, and creating space to discuss future research.

Colleagues discussing materials and techniques during experts meeting

A year prior to this project, a survey of modern Latin American paintings for a gallery rotation revealed that an extraordinary work by María Luisa Pacheco had been damaged before it could be exhibited at the Museum in 1959. The damage resulted in a large tear, which incidentally was an ideal candidate for Heiber thread-by-thread tear-mending techniques. Underlying the treatment was the desire to finally be able to exhibit this extraordinary work. The damaged painting also presented an opportunity to develop mending techniques specifically relating to modern and contemporary paintings, which often pose new challenges for conservators relating to structural treatment.

Before (left) and after (right) mending.
Before (left) and after (right) treatment.
María Luisa Pacheco, Stoic Figure, 1959, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase, 1959.48

Stoic Figure was painted in 1959 by Bolivian artist María Luisa Pacheco (1919–1982) and measures 66 1/8 x 48 1⁄4 inches. Pacheco was an influential painter and mixed media artist born in La Paz, immigrating to New York City in 1956. Her early work is indicative of the Indigenism style of contemporary Bolivian painters, with an edge in more abstract experimentation. Her later career is marked by a shift toward texture in her paintings, likely influenced by Cubist painters such as Georges Braque and Juan Gris. Her paintings, however, continued consistently to show an underlying Indigenist inspiration, reminiscent of her Andean culture, which is exemplified by the painting at hand.

Luciana working on the tear mend
Detail showing tear-mending technique

The large tear, which measured over six inches, was beautifully mended using the Hieber technique. This technique works locally to bring back the woven tension to the torn area and invisibly repair the damage. These photomicrograph images, taken with a microscope camera, show some of the re-weaving process.

Photomicrograph showing an area before treatment (left) and during the mending process (right)
Photomicrograph showing an area before treatment (left) and the same area after mending (right)

Throughout the project, Luciana also explored some of the research needs identified in the experts meeting. Specifically, she made mock-ups of tears to experiment with new tools and materials for the tear-mending process.

Tear-mending experimentation trials on mock-up

The Getty grant allowed us to successfully mend the large tear on a powerful work of art that can now be appreciated in the galleries, while also training colleagues in this useful technique. Additionally, we were able to take advantage of the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in Latin America to advance knowledge on materials and techniques used in tear-mending practices.

Laura Hartman (middle) and colleagues in front of Stoic Figure

Laura Hartman is the Paintings Conservator at the DMA.


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