Posts Tagged 'art conservation'

All Bow Before the Bow

Interim Chief Conservator Fran Baas with Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse’s L’Alsace

As the checklist was being developed for the recent reinstallation of the European Art Galleries, curator Dr. Nicole Myers consulted with the Objects Conservation Team about the DMA’s terracotta bust L’Alsace by French sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. This mid-19th-century sculpture had not been featured in our permanent collection galleries in over 10 years, and the re-envisioned gallery design, featuring recent bequests and a more in-depth narrative of European art history, was just the opportunity to review some of our holdings. When we assessed the sculpture’s condition, we agreed on a few issues that needed to be addressed prior to display. Though structurally sound, this sculpture needed some attention to increase the aesthetic legibility. The curatorial-conservation collaboration is an insightful joint investigation as both subject matter experts work together to best present a work of art to the public.

Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, L’Alsace, before 1883, terracotta, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Edmund Pillsbury, Fort Worth, in honor of the opening of the new Dallas Museum of Art, 1983.153

This captivating terracotta sculpture is a symbolic representation of an idealized young woman of the Alsace region—a politically charged cultural and historic area because governance passed back and forth between France and Germany from the Thirty Years’ War to World War II. Though it is unclear exactly when in the 19th century this bust was created, the Alsatian culture is a unique mix of French and German influences.

The subject’s elaborate hairstyle (crimped bangs and two long braids, also called “plaits” in the 19th century), a section of an embroidered traditional dirndl apron dress, and bunches of flowers at her chest and in her hair are all visual cues to amplify the allegory of femininity and nationality. In the mid-19th century, the societal fashion across the European countries celebrated elaborate and rather complicated hair, and even for a time, these crimped bangs. A woman’s crowning glory was her hair. Keep in mind, hairstyle codes for women differed with age and even marital status. And, in this sculpture, we also get a snapshot of the region.

Charles Spindler, cover of Léon Boll’s “Wines and Coteaux d’Alsace” brochure, 1900

To both increase the legibility of and focus the viewer on the sculpture’s attributes (both in subject matter and material appreciation), the goals were to give it a general cleaning and to minimize stains and discolored old repairs. The minor oily grime discolorations seen around the high-touch areas, such as the underarm area, were reduced mechanically with vinyl erasers. The deep interstices in the terracotta had accumulated layers of dust, darkening the recesses even further. Dust and some minor spots of mold were carefully removed with a selection of tools (soft brushes, swabs, and a HEPA vacuum with micro-attachments).

Notice the minor oily grime discoloration around high-touch areas, such as this underarm area, before conservation.
Before and after reducing discolorations mechanically with vinyl erasers

Unifying the appearance of a previous restoration (a large patched hole on the back of the sculpture) with the surrounding areas was the most time-consuming part of the treatment. This old restoration was still structurally stable but drew unnecessary attention because the old fill materials used did not match the terracotta. So, the areas were toned back with reversible conservation paints.

The old restoration fills did not match the original terracotta.
Fran Baas treating the sculpture
Before and after treatment

She is now on view, under an acrylic case for protection from dust and grimy hands, with each side visible and offering something interesting for the viewer. Please find this work in our virtual gallery and spend time appreciating its craftsmanship and how the terracotta clay was manipulated by the artist before firing. You can see the artist’s fingerprints in the flower petals at her chest, revealing the creative spontaneity during the working process. Notice her exquisite outfit depicting her regional identity but especially appreciate that large bow. She’s gorgeous—even more so now that she’s been cleaned and restored!

Notice the details in the flowers, including the artist’s fingerprints in the flower petals.

Fran Baas is the Interim Chief Conservator at the DMA.

Preserving 100-Year-Old Plastic: Naum Gabo’s “Constructed Head No. 2”

The plastic sculpture is deteriorating, so slowly you can’t tell, but actively and unavoidably. For two years now, Elena Torok, Assistant Objects Conservator at the DMA, has been researching the repair history and material composition of Constructed Head No. 2 by Naum Gabo (1890–1977), in preparation for a conservation treatment this past spring. The sculpture is now free to see in the European Art Galleries.

Naum Gabo, Constructed Head No. 2, 1923–24, based on an original design of 1916, Ivory Rhodoid, Dallas Museum of Art, Edward S. Marcus Memorial Fund, 1981.35, © Nina Williams, England

Naum Gabo was a Russian avant-garde artist who worked with some of the some earliest forms of plastic in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Plastic was just becoming commercially available, and Constructivists like Gabo were interested in using new materials to merge art and daily life.

Over his lifetime, Gabo made seven versions of Constructed Head No. 2. They are all similar in design—a geometric bust of a woman made of many combined pieces—but they vary in size and medium. The earliest version was made from painted galvanized iron in 1916, and the latest, in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s collection, was made from stainless steel in 1975. The version in the DMA’s collection, dated 1923–1924, is made from Ivory Rhodoid (a trade name for an early cellulose ester). It is the only version Gabo made in plastic.

Plastic artworks are tricky for museums to preserve. There are many types of plastics, and the materials, still relatively new to the history of art, don’t all age well. Depending on type, they may start to bend, change color, or even break down entirely. Gabo’s early plastic works are known for their sensitivity. A sculpture acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art notoriously degraded to the point of being unable to be shown again.

Assistant Objects Conservator Elena Torok with Naum Gabo’s Constructed Head No. 2.

How has the DMA’s sculpture escaped that fate? Torok’s research indicates it has something to do with the color. More specifically, she has identified white pigments in Constructed Head No. 2 that appear to slow the deterioration of this particular plastic. Although the sculpture has discolored slightly and the left shoulder has started to bend and deform, it is still in great condition, especially compared to many other plastic works Gabo made during the same time period.

By 2017 what had not aged so well were materials used in older repairs. Constructed Head No. 2 was repaired at least three times before it was acquired by the DMA in 1981, and some of the glues used had started to yellow and darken (a common occurrence with certain adhesives as they age). This change was not only visually problematic, but also structurally worrisome; as glues discolor, their breakdown can eventually cause older repairs to lose their strength. As a result, this important work in the Museum’s collection has not been displayed in recent years.

Torok treats Naum Gabo’s Constructed Head No. 2.

Torok thoroughly researched the sculpture’s repair history before determining a conservation treatment plan. Earlier this year, she carefully removed the old, discolored adhesive and replaced it with new adhesive that is long-lasting and, most importantly, reversible, meaning it can be removed and replaced if necessary in the future. In August the sculpture went back on display for the first time in five years.

Constructed Head No. 2 is almost 100 years old now. The sculpture is too fragile to leave the DMA, it can’t be displayed too long due to light sensitivities, and it has to be shown in a special perforated case to allow for air exchange. As it slowly breaks down, the plastic releases distinct-smelling chemicals that can actually speed the aging of the sculpture if allowed to remain enclosed in close contact with it over time. Museums continue to acquire works made with plastic, and conservators continue to research the material and fight science with science in order to keep works on view (and intact) as long as possible.

Lillian Michel is the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Second Blooming

Alexander Calder’s Flower is back in the galleries after undergoing recent treatment in the Objects Conservation Lab. This mobile, a highlight of the collection, was given to the Museum in 1949, after it was commissioned for the Dallas Garden Club Flower Show by Mrs. Alex Camp and the Dallas Garden Club. The acquisition marked the beginning of the Museum’s contemporary art collection.

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An early photo of Flower from the DMA Archives.

In recent decades, Flower has not flowed or moved as Calder originally intended because of damage that occurred in 1979. While installed at the Museum’s former home in Fair Park, the mobile fell two stories and crashed to the ground after its hanging attachment failed. This caused loss of paint and some minor structural changes to the mobile’s elements. Because the piece is very carefully balanced in its construction, and weighs only four pounds overall, these slight deformations created noticeable alterations in how the mobile moved. Paint losses were addressed at the time, but all attempts to return the mobile to its original form were ultimately unsuccessful.

In preparation for Flower’s current display, DMA Associate Objects Conservator Fran Baas and I performed a conservation treatment this past fall. Our work enabled the mobile to move again in a way that more closely represents Calder’s original design. It also provided a unique opportunity to learn more about Flower’s history.

 

As we worked with DMA Archivist Hillary Bober to examine Calder’s original 1949 drawings and archival photographs of an early 1950s installation, subtle differences became clear. Most notably, one central metal hook was bent in an entirely different position than it had been. The changed areas were carefully manipulated back to their original positions to the extent that was safely possible. Although these repairs were very small, they created big changes in how the mobile moves overall.

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Flower on display after recent conservation treatment.

After many years, Flower finally hangs in a way that is much closer to what Calder intended. This beautiful floating sculpture is now on view in the Museum’s Concourse overlook on Level 3.

Elena Torok is the Assistant Objects Conservator at the DMA.

 

Artistic Equations

Mathematics and art, two subjects that are often thought of as an unlikely combination; however, for American artist Alfred Jensen these two subjects fit together exactly. One of Jensen’s geometric, mathematical paintings could be seen if you peeked into the Conservation Studioab this past fall. This painting may appear simple in design, but the process and the surface are very complicated and interesting. Jensen was fascinated by the Maya calendar, philosophy, mathematics, color theory, pre-Columbian culture, and Asian culture. All of these things influence the compositions he creates, and in this particular painting there is very likely a specific reason for the number and placement of each dot of paint throughout the work.

Jensen combines mathematical and philosophical theory with artistic practice in his works similar to the way the field of conservation combines science with art. This perfect comparison makes it all the more exciting to perform a conservation treatment on this painting. In this work, it appears that Jensen applied the paint straight from the tube by dotting it directly onto a primed canvas. The dots were clearly not added at random, but were planned out, as is evidenced by a grid applied in pencil that can be seen in the reserves between the dots, below the paint.

Due to the high impasto of each little dot of paint, little cups and horizontal platforms are created that are perfectly positioned for catching and gathering dust. The dust detracts from and changes the way the colors interact with each other, affecting the color theory aspect of Jensen’s technique. Additionally, since the surface is unvarnished, the dust has started to attach itself to the paint, which will make it increasingly difficult to remove in the future.

Removing the dust from the surface is no easy task. Each little dot of paint has pointed ends that are extremely fragile and sometimes very small and difficult to see without magnification. As the DMA’s conservation intern, I began cleaning this painting in September 2017. In the image below, I’m using an optivisor to be able to see the very tiny, vulnerable peaks of paint and a small, soft brush to carefully dust each daub of paint to reveal the intended color below without disturbing the peaks. A HEPA vacuum gathers the dust so it doesn’t settle back onto the paint below.

The removal of the dust is a very slow, careful process because each little dot essentially becomes its own painting, requiring individual attention. From the viewing window of the Conservation Studio, it may seem as if the painting has not changed very much; however, below you can see the difference between a cleaned (green) and uncleaned area (blue) of the painting. The area in the green square is no longer dull and gray, and the colors show their intended vibrancy. The cleaning, while slow and detailed, is a very satisfying process.

Caroline Hoover is the Conservation Intern at the DMA.

Grime, Dust, and Drips…oh my! A short update from the Steichen Conservation team

If you’ve walked through the Barrel Gallery recently, you might have seen some conservators crawling around. Whether on the floor or on the ladder, the monumental size of Steichen’s mural series, In Exaltation of Flowers, has required some minor acrobatics. The team recently finished the cleaning phase of the treatment process – an essential step to protect the paintings from further degradation and ensure they can be enjoyed to the full extent that their beauty merits.

Cleaning huge paintings with tiny sponges.

You may recall from the short history of the murals that was recently posted that the canvases have been rolled up for over a century. During that time they encountered water damage, dust, dirt, grime, and other indignities that can be found in a storage room. This left the paintings with a significant amount of dust and dirt on their surfaces, which dulled the colors and deadened the sheen of the paint. To remove this disfiguring accumulation, we used special non-abrasive sponges to gently dry clean the surface and reveal the surprisingly fresh surface the paintings still exhibit. In areas of drips from water damage, tiny hand-rolled cotton swabs and a gentle chelating solution were employed.

The aftermath.

After cleaning, the paintings were brighter, more even, and much closer to the appearance Steichen intended them to have. The next phase of treatment includes loss compensation, framing, and preventive measures like backing boards. We’ll describe these processes next week.

Before and after cleaning

 

Elements of Beauty: Studying Steichen’s Technique

Over the past several weeks, a series of seven murals entitled In Exaltation of Flowers by painter and photographer Edward Steichen have been undergoing conservation treatment in the Barrel Vault Quadrant Galleries. The first step to any conservation treatment is the careful examination of the artwork. This gives a conservator insight into the condition of the artwork, and allows for a better understanding of the artist’s materials and working methods. A thorough examination provides invaluable information, which a conservator uses to plan the best conservation treatment.

Fig. 1-2 Left: photographed under visible light Right: Photographed under UV. When viewed under UV, different pigments used to paint the sitters face become apparent based on their characteristic fluorescence.

The conservation team has been examining and documenting the front and back of each mural. To better understand their painted surfaces, the team is using different types of surface imaging techniques incorporating the use of visible light, raking light, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The information gained from these different light sources provides a better understanding of the structure and condition of the murals. For example, viewing the murals under UV can give information regarding pigments, surface coatings, and previous restoration (fig. 1-2).

Fig. 3 Conservation intern Diana Hartman positioning the XRF spectrometer on an area of metal leaf in preparation for analysis. The XRF spectrum above is an example of the data collected from this analytical technique.

More in-depth elemental analysis using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) has also been carried out to help determine the types of pigments and metal leaf present on all seven murals (fig.3). This non-destructive technique uses an x-ray beam to excite electrons causing different atoms to emit energy characteristic of specific elements. By detecting these elements, XRF provides information a conservator can use to identify the pigments present.

Fig. 4 Conservation intern Keara Teeter collecting a sample from an area with gilding

Microscopic samples were taken to better understand the layered structure of the murals starting from the ground layer, priming layer(s), paint layer(s), and in some areas metal leaf (fig.5). These cross-section samples are viewed at high magnification with both visible light and UV, which allows for a close look at the type of pigments, adhesives, and coatings present and the order in which the artist applied them.

Fig. 5 Cross-section sample magnified 200X, photographed with visible light. Description of the layers from the bottom up: canvas glue sizing, white ground, blue paint, light yellow paint, dark yellow paint, black paint, adhesive, gold leaf.

Diana Hartman is a Conservation Intern at the DMA

New Conservator in our House

Recently we welcomed Elena Torok to the DMA’s Conservation Team! She joins us in the new role of Assistant Conservator of Objects. With over 24,000 objects in our encyclopedic collection,  an active acquisition program, busy exhibition calendar, and  increasing analytical/research needs, this additional staff member will assist with the growing demands on conservation.

She will work closely with the Collections and Exhibition Teams – and looks forward to sharing her holistic and scientific knowledge of materials with the larger team – creating a care plan for the collections.  She will dive immediately into the treatments of several objects for upcoming rotations.

Below, Elena answers a few brief questions for Uncrated to introduce her to you.  Welcome Elena!

Before joining us at the DMA, where did you work?
Before joining the DMA, I worked for just over four years as a conservator at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) in New Haven, CT. Most recently, I worked on YUAG’s large-scale storage move of 35,000 objects to the new Margaret and Angus Wurtele Collection Studies Center, a brand new visible study and storage center at Yale’s West Campus. I also assisted with the treatment and scientific analysis of a range of different types of objects (including decorative arts, modern and contemporary sculpture, and archaeological materials).

Prior to my time at YUAG, I earned my M.S. from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 2013 with concentrations in Objects Conservation and Preventive Conservation. During and before my graduate studies, I also completed internships at The British Museum (London, England), the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA), and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Williamsburg, VA).

Growing up, what type of career did you envision yourself in? Did you think you’d work in an art museum?
In college, I actually majored in Neuroscience! I thought for a very long time that I wanted to be a scientist or a medical doctor. But as soon as I learned that the field of conservation existed (which combines many different types of science with art and art history in very exciting ways), I completely changed paths.

What skill set are you most proud to bring to the DMA?
I have really enjoyed the work I’ve done in preventive conservation (or the prevention or delay of deterioration of cultural heritage). I look forward to continuing this work at the DMA. Recently, I have participated in research related to Oddy testing (used for selecting materials for an object’s storage or display that have the most ideal ageing properties), anoxic treatment methods for pest management, and environmental pollutant monitoring.

What is your favorite thing about being a conservator?
I love that my job allows me to interact with collections in ways that often shed new light on an object’s history or an artist’s work, which continually enables me to keep learning. I feel lucky to be part of a field that also serves to share this information and connect the public with cultural heritage and works of art. I am so thrilled to work at the DMA and I very much look forward to working with and learning from the staff and the collections!

Fran Baas is the Associate Conservator at the DMA

Starting with a Blank Canvas: Preparing Steichen’s Rare Murals for Display

If you have wandered past the Barrel Vault Quadrant Galleries during the initial stages of the Edward Steichen: In Exaltation of Flowers conservation project, you likely saw a lot of beige—new stretchers, plain cotton-duck fabric, and backsides of paintings—and five women hammering, measuring, and stapling away. A handful of visitors have asked us what we are doing or if we are the artists, so we thought we should explain a bit about the initial and necessary steps in the conservation of these magnificent murals. While the most glamorous parts of conservation treatments are usually the final steps like inpainting and varnishing, the beginning of a project often includes a lot of preparatory work and a healthy amount of elbow grease, and it is just as important that we are precise in these first stages of treatment as we are in the final steps.

The seven large paintings that make up Steichen’s In Exaltation of Flowers were commissioned by Agnes and Eugene Meyer for their townhouse in Manhattan. Due to financial difficulties, however, the murals were never hung in their intended environment (read more of the history here). The paintings were shown as a set only once, in 1915 at the Knoedler Gallery in New York City, and have not been shown in a series since. Records indicate that two or three of the paintings were shown individually in exhibitions between 1915 and the present, and one painting arrived at the DMA already stretched. Aside from this, the paintings were stored rolled before coming to the DMA, accumulating dirt and dust for over 100 years.

Keara Teeter using a soft brush and vacuum attachment to remove dirt and dust from the reverse of a painting.

In order to help remove a century’s worth of grime, we vacuumed the reverse sides of each unstretched painting. This process is likely not what you are picturing; we don’t take the Dyson out of the closet and roll it over the canvas, wheels and all. Instead, we use a soft-bristle brush to sweep particulates into a vacuum attachment nozzle, with the vacuum on a low setting. When the painting is unstretched and on the (clean, paper-covered) floor, as these are, vacuuming can involve a bit of body contortion and a lot of ab muscles to ensure the nozzle and brush reach all areas of the canvas while the motor of the vacuum and our knees do not.

Six out of the seven paintings came to the DMA unstretched, and with their original stretchers nowhere to be found. Shiny new stretcher bars were ordered from Simon Liu, Inc. in New York, and it took all of our project interns to assemble six of these massive supports for the paintings.

Diana Hartman and Keara Teeter assembling a stretcher.

Once the stretchers were assembled, we created what is known as a loose lining. This involves attaching plain cotton-duck fabric to each stretcher, using canvas pliers and arm muscles to make sure each one is taut, and securing each one with staples. Later in the project, we will stretch Steichen’s paintings over these loose-lined stretchers, and the first layer of cotton-duck fabric will serve as a sort of bed for the paintings. Even though the canvases are in very good condition for being centenarians, they are somewhat weak where they have been folded over stretchers in the past, and the fibers have aged and become more brittle. The loose lining provides support and protection for the original canvas, and ensures that we do not have to pull hard on the original canvases to achieve planarity when they are stretched.

The next steps in our treatment will involve attaching edge linings to the original canvases, stretching the paintings over the loose linings, and performing some analysis with X-Ray Fluorescence in order to determine what elements are present. Stay tuned to learn more about these processes!

Pamela Johnson is a Conservation Intern at the DMA.

 

 

 

Mask Mysteries

Before I arrived at the DMA, I wasn’t quite sure what my daily tasks as the McDermott Intern for African Art would entail. I certainly never expected to be sitting in on a biomedical engineering lecture at UT Southwestern studying a CT scan—but this was no ordinary CT scan: it was a scan of the DMA’s helmet mask (komo) from the Senufo peoples of Côte d’Ivoire.

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The purpose of this scan was to discover the contents of the horns that decorate the mask, as well as any other ritual materials that may have been placed within the structure. The scan showed the horns contained many small objects, including animal jaws and a variety of organic matter. With this information in hand, I hit the books in an attempt to understand why these objects would be chosen for use in a mask such as this one. As the Komo society is a secret knowledge society, details of masking traditions are not frequently shared; however, I was able to compile some information from Boureima T. Diamitani, scholar and Komo society member, to help contextualize the mask and the mysterious contents of its horns.

Helmet mask (komo), mid–20th century, wood, glass, animal horns, fiber, and mirrors, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley 1997.24

Helmet mask (komo), Cote d’Ivoire, Senufo peoples, mid-20th century, wood, glass, animal horns, fiber, and mirrors, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of David T. Owsley, 1997.24

The komo is believed to be a spirit above humans who possesses supernatural powers and is sent by God (Kle) to protect members of the secretive Komo society. The komo performs a masquerade that today functions as both a divination ritual and a form of entertainment.

The origin of the Komo society is found in a story in which a hunter and his dog encountered and killed a frightening beast in the forest. The hunter brought the beast’s head back to the village to entertain the townspeople, thus becoming the first komotigui, or owner of the Komo. The mask form is taken from the appearance of the beast killed by the hunter. Today, the mask is most often worn during performances by the son of the komotigui or the son of the blacksmith who carved it.

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Blacksmiths carve komo masks from one piece of bugusulu softwood, a tree used exclusively for this purpose. As females and uninitiated males are not permitted to see the mask, the blacksmith must himself be a member of the Komo society and must carve the mask in the forest, out of sight of the village. The mask, carved over the course of three days, is sculpted with small wooden horns, which are then fitted with animal horns. The choice to carve the mask with horns is an important one: since relatively few animals have horns, the addition of horns emphasizes the strangeness and power associated with this creature. Upon completion, the carver relinquishes all responsibilities for the mask to the new komotigui, who may choose to add porcupine quills, more horns, feathers, or any other element he chooses; these additions distinguish particular masks from one another. A competitive spirit between komotiguis is a catalyst for artistic production and the various styles of many komo masks.

Due to the personal preference involved in decorating the mask, we cannot be sure of the significance of each element that was found in the horns. Many komotiguis chose to place powerful substances such as medicine or poison inside of the horns due to the aggressiveness and fear associated with them. This implies that the substances that filled the horns likely held some type of ritual significance to Komo society members and were believed to increase the potency of the Komo society as well as the mask itself.

Although we do not yet have all of the answers regarding the materials contained in this mask, or the reason that each specific item was chosen, we are on our way to a better understanding of the context of this mask’s creation. Further, this experience has immensely broadened my outlook on the ways in which science, technology, and the arts can work together to draw important cultural conclusions.

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Megan Zembower is the McDermott Intern for African Art at the DMA.

References:
Diamitani, Boureima Tiekoroni.  1999.  Identities, Komo Societies, and Art Among the Tagwa Senufo of Burkina Faso (Doctoral Dissertation).
Diamitani, Boureima T.  “The Insider and the Ethnography of Secrecy:  Challenges of Collecting Data on the Fearful Komo of the Tagwa-Senufo.”  The African Archaeological Review 28, no. 1 (2011):  55-70.
Diamitani, Boureima Tiékoroni.  “Observing Komo among Tagwa People in Burkina Faso:  A Burkinabe Art Historian’s Views.”  African Arts 41, no. 3 (2008):  14-25.

The Sum of All Parts

The DMA’s conservation team works on a variety of projects throughout the year. DMA Associate Conservator Laura Hartman shared insights on one fascinating project in the Fall issue of the DMA Member magazine, Artifacts.

Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves (detail), François Lepage, 1816–20, oli on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 2016.23.M

François Lepage, Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves (detail), 1816–20, oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 2016.23.M

In 1925, Dallas philanthropist Gertrude (Trudie) Terrell Munger endowed a fund for acquisitions to the Museum’s permanent collection. For over ninety years, the Munger Fund has been instrumental in the purchase of some of the DMA’s greatest treasures across its encyclopedic collection. These include Claude Monet’s The Seine at Lavacourt, Camille Pissarro’s Apple Picking at Eragny-sure-Epte, and the important old-master painting Basket of Flowers by Osias Beert the Elder. This spring, the Munger Fund acquired another world-class work: Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves, a beautifully preserved 19th-century painting by the Lyonnais artist François Lepage. The DMA’s conservation team examined it under the microscope to study the artist’s technique a bit closer.

Exquisite in its highly polished finish and attention to detail, Flowers in a Vase with Two Doves is meticulously painted and beautifully preserved, making its examination both enjoyable and an important opportunity to see a work of art as intended by the artist. Lepage has been described as a methodical and slow painter, and it has been suggested that it took him four years to complete this work. At first glance, the surface appears smooth and highly refined, but when observed under magnification each meticulous brushstroke becomes evident, revealing a surprisingly free and painterly technique.

Droplets of water, for example, are expertly applied to petals and leaves to create a convincing optical effect. These droplets, when observed under magnification, reveal a somewhat abbreviated painting approach.

Lepage also used his brush to quite literally add texture, heightening the illusion of tactile effects. Tiny details reveal the use of linear and directive brushstrokes in dialogue with such small highlights as the textured dots found along the butterfly’s wing and at the center of the chamomile flowers.

Microscopic examination of works of art often reveals important and interesting perspectives not immediately visible to the naked eye. This type of study allows conservators to better care for each work of art, giving a fundamental look into an artist’s working techniques.

—Laura Hartman is the Associate Conservator at the DMA.

 


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