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Preserving the light: conservation at the Kimbell: the Kimbell's conservation studio has always been central to the life of the museum. Claire Barry, the chief conservator, discusses three case studies that demonstrate how the department's work has produced significant discoveries.

From the very start, the founders of the Kimbell Art Museum envisioned a conservation programme to 'preserve for future generations what has been entrusted to its care.' (1) The pre-architectural programme, dated 1966, called for a conservation studio with an 'open studio work area', with the caveat that it 'must face north, with entire wall glazed; it is impossible to get enough light in this room!' (2) The paintings conservation studio that grew out of this imperative is the only space in the Kimbell, other than the lower level of the auditorium, that Louis Kahn designed with a double-height vault. An ideal environment to examine, clean and restore works of art, it has served as a model for many museum conservation laboratories that have followed. Astutely planned to be adjacent to photography, storage and the fries in the registrar's office, the conservation studio is also within easy access of the curators' and director's offices. This was due to the vision of the first director, Rick Brown, who wanted conservation to be embedded within the total museum programme.

In 1971, the year before the museum opened, Brown hired Perry Huston as the Kimbell's paintings conservator, to oversee the care of the more than 200 paintings in Kay Kimbell's bequest and the acquisitions that began in 1965. Huston, who had trained for seven years under James Roth at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, arrived 'before the roof was put on', and advised on the final design of the conservation studio. He wisely counselled that the space be organised as an open plan, rather than being divided up into a series of smaller rooms. (3) Over the next 12 years, he cared for the Kimbell collection on a part-time basis.


Following the arrival in December 1980 of Edmund (Ted) Pillsbury, the museum's second director, conservation began to play a more pivotal role in the Kimbell's acquisition programme, as the rate of acquisition of European paintings quickly accelerated under his leadership. As he had done as director of the Yale Center for British Art, Pillsbury frequently sought the advice of John Brealey, a renowned English paintings restorer who had been recruited from private practice in London to head and direct the paintings conservation department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he worked from 1975 to 1989. (4) There he trained a number of European and American conservators, with a profound influence on conservation practices throughout American museums. When the Kimbell acquired Georges de la Tour's Cheat with the Ace of Clubs in 1981, Pillsbury sent the painting to Brealey at the Metropolitan for conservation. It became the first of many Kimbell acquisitions restored there. A mutually beneficial relationship was born as Brealey incorporated the restoration of Kimbell paintings into his training programme, while the Kimbell benefited from his consummate judgment and skill.


In 1984, when Huston moved completely into private practice, the present author, a protege of Brealey's for several years, was appointed as the Kimbell's first full-time paintings conservator. Through the generosity of a museum trustee who greatly admired Brealey's programme, the Burnett (then Tandy) Foundation provided funds to furnish the Kimbell with state-of-the-at equipment that rivalled that of the Metropolitan.

The cleaning and close examination of paintings has sometimes revealed crucial evidence for resolving issues of iconography, dating or even authenticity. For example, the British art historian Christopher Wright, who had initially challenged the authenticity of the Kimbell's Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour changed his opinion following the restoration detailed in the case study below. 5 When Titian's Madonna and Child with a Female Saint in a Landscape (Fig. 1) was acquired in 1986, after being sold at auction in Britain for a modest sum as a studio work, the London Times ran the story as 'Art World Takes Sides over the Bargain Titian') By 1987, scholars who had examined the work throughout the course of cleaning and restoration affirmed Titian's hand in the painting. (7)

Caravaggio's Card Sharps, a lost original that had reappeared on the market after some 80 years, was acquired by the Kimbell in 1987 (see page 39). When the removal of the old lining canvas revealed Cardinal del Monte's wax seal on the reverse, sceptics who held that it was just one of several copies of the artist's influential early work were convinced. This was one of several key findings during examination and treatment that finally attributed the painting to Caravaggio. (8)

In 1992 I was named chief conservator and the paintings conservation department expanded from one to two full-time conservators with the appointment of Michael Gallagher as assistant conservator. Respect for an artist's original intent remains the principle guiding conservation practices. Research into an artist's use of materials and techniques informs conservation treatments, with the aim of keeping intervention to a minimum. Top priority is given to supporting an artist's preferences regarding varnishing and framing. For example, varnishes were removed from the surfaces of some of the Kimbell's impressionist paintings, since it is now understood that these artists preferred matte surfaces (Camille Pissarro even wrote instructions not to varnish on the reverse of his canvases). Paintings by Pissarro and Cezanne were freed from surface coatings that had been applied prior to acquisition as the result of well-intentioned but misguided intervention. The removal of a discoloured natural resin varnish from the surface of Paul Gauguin's 1885 Self-Portrait led to the discovery beneath the discoloured varnish of a thin film of colourless wax, probably the remnant of the artist's original surface treatment. (9)

The appointment of Timothy Potts as director in 1998 initiated a new period of conservation activity as he strengthened the Kimbell's sculpture collection. Increasingly, the paintings conservation department became involved in the care of three-dimensional acquisitions, usually not through hands-on treatment but rather through examination and research and by serving as a conduit to specialists in the field of objects conservation when treatment was required. In one exception, assistant paintings conservator Elise Effmann restored the Maya Vessel with Mythological Frieze (see page 51), drawing on her experience with paintings to reconstruct losses on the polychrome vase, but limiting the extent of her inpainting to a level that was appropriate for an archaeological object.

Notable treatments included the cleaning of the Michelozzo gilded bronze St John the Baptist (see page 45) by Jack Soultanian at the Metropolitan Museum; the restoration of the Cambodian Harihara (see pages 58-63) by John Hirx at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the cleaning and restoration of Bernini's Modello of The Moor (see page 48) by Tony Sigel at the Strauss Center for Conservation at Harvard University Art Museums. I also worked with Ron Street, a mould-maker from the Metropolitan Museum, and the San Francisco architect John Bassett in the structured light scanning and replication of a Maya 7th-century Stela with a Ruler so that a faithful reproduction can be placed on the site where it was found, E1 Peru in the Peten region of Guatemala, in the fall of 2007.

As the Kimbell plans for the future with a new building by Renzo Piano, the conservation department will contribute to discussions about conservation needs for the new facility, which will be dedicated primarily to temporary exhibitions. Maintaining a controlled environment to enable the Kimbell to preserve the works of art entrusted to its care, while allowing for optimal viewing under natural light, will be the primary concerns, just as they were from the start when the plans for the museum's paintings conservation department were first conceived.



The jewel-like colours of this small but captivating work, executed in tempera with pure pigments such as vermilion and precious lapis-lazuli, were brought to fight by cleaning following its acquisition in 1986. The panel is in excellent condition, notwithstanding the small xs scratched through the faces of the devils, possibly by an overzealous believer. The delicacy of the artist's touch in the gilding of the drapery borders recalls late-gothic manuscript illumination.

X-radiography confirmed that the poplar support, as was typical for the period, was prepared with sized linen prior to the addition of the gesso ground, and that the gilded edge at the fight was integral to the painting. Treatment included the removal of a wooden backing from the panel, which had been thinned, and the addition of vertical battens to stabilise the support. (10) Because the left edge had been trimmed by approximately three centimetres, a modern strip of gilded wood was inserted in its place to match the other edges. The physical evidence of this original clipped border at right, as well as similarities of dimensions and style, provided clues that ultimately led to the Kimbell panel being linked with others from the predella of a now dismantled altarpiece by Fra Angelico. At the time of its acquisition the Kimbell panel was known to be related to Fra Angelico's Naming of the Baptist (Museo di San Marco, Florence), and possibly The Meeting of St Dominic and St Frands of Assisi (The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). Since then all the remaining predella panels have been identified. Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy proposed Burial of the Virgin and the Reception of her Soul in Heaven (Philadelphia Museum of Art, the John G. Johnson Collection) as the central image of the predella, and its quality was confirmed following cleaning. (11) With the discovery of The Appearance of St Agatha to St Lucy (Collection Richard L. Feigen, New York), published by Laurence Kanter in 2000, the last missing panel was found. (12)




In preparation for the 1996-97 exhibition 'Georges de La Tour and his World' at the National Gallery in Washington and the Kimbell, I undertook, with then assistant conservator Michael Gallagher and Dr Tony Chang at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithershurg, Maryland, two autoradiographic studies of two paintings in the Kimbell collection by La Tour: The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs (Fig. 5) and St Sebastian Tended by Irene. This was the first time that autoradiography had been used in the study of De La Tour's work. (13) The study was motivated in part by the desire to establish the relationship of these canvases to other authentic variants or copies by the artist. Notably, it offered the opportunity to substantiate the presumed relationship of two variants, the Kimbell's The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs and the Louvre's The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds (Fig. 6).

The numerous pentimenti or compositional changes in the Kimbell variant of The Cheat seemed to support the view that it was the prime version of the artist's composition. However, some of the colours of the costumes in the painting seemed to contradict this view. Originally, both the cheat's collar and the maidservant's turban (Fig. 9) were the same colour as in the Louvre variant, but La Tour changed them. In addition, the autoradiograph revealed the artist's use of numerous brown brush outlines, never before seen, to establish the contours of the maidservant and the cheat, as well as the top of the left edge of the table and outlines of the wine flask, glass and cheat's cards. (14) These brushmarks, which have the character of a preliminary outline sketch, established that in some cases La Tour initially composed the design of the Kimbell work in a way similar to the final compositional arrangement of the Louvre's The Cheat. For example, the cheat's coat flap in the Kimbell painting was originally drawn, although not painted, in a lower position, like the Paris version.

This autoradiography evidence, in particular the discovery of the brown brush underdrawing, argued that the two versions of The Cheat could have been based on a common model. Although he never slavishly repeated himself, La Tour may have used a common set of cartoons to create unique variants of a composition. He may have shifted these drawings or cartoons when establishing the composition on canvas (Figs. 7 and 8). When a tracing of the initial, overpainted profile of the servant (detected under infrared light) was made and shifted in the painting, it could be superimposed exactly over the final profile.

This traditional, premeditated working method differs from Caravaggio's practice of using incisions early in the design process as he painted from live models. The autoradiographlc investigation of the De La Tour paintings uncovered evidence of a more meditated and systematic approach, in which the artist used a transfer method, such as cartoons, to modify and replicate his compositions.







Examination of L'Asie (Fig. 2) with infrared reflectography uncovered traces of a hitherto unknown earlier state of this picture, signed and dated by Matisse in 1946. This state corresponds to a black-and-white photograph of L'Asie (15) published in 1951 (Fig. 10) only five years after L'Asie was completed. (16) The photograph shows the painting with a black quadrant in the lower left, enlivened by arabesque lines, with the signature and date scratched into wet paint, revealing the white ground. In L'Ade's finished state, Matisse changed this area to flaming red (Fig. 11), thereby unifying the background as a decorative space, and redrew the signature and date in black crayon. (17)

The underdrawing from the earlier state is detectable because paint layers that do not reflect light in the infrared range, such as the red background of L'Asie, become transparent when the painting is analysed with an infrared camera. Residues of black paint from the earlier background had become deposited in the inscribed lines when Matisse wiped away or 'erased' the black paint with turpentine to prepare the area for his revision. The contrast of these black lines against the white ground helped to produce a relatively clear image of the underdrawing when viewed under infrared light (Figs. 12 and 13).

Matisse's practice of reworking his paintings is well known. As Yve-Alain Bois observed, 'the spontaneous look of [his] canvases is the result of an elaborate, slow method'. (18) As early as 1909, Matisse was documenting the progress of a painting with a series of photographs; Large Reclining Nude (1935; The Baltimore Museum of Art), is one of many works whose revisions he methodically recorded.

Unvarnished and unlined, L'Asie is in excellent state, and the surface is enlivened with a variety of visual effects. Matisse created the texture of the velvet robe by scraping away paint to suggest the nap of the fabric, and defined the edges of the coat with freely applied zig-zag strokes. The model's vivid orange skin tones are painted with loose open brushwork that reveals the white ground. Together, the paint layer and ground generate a palpable sense of energy on the canvas that seems to radiate light.

The freshness of the surface of L'Asie is due to the fastidiousness with which Matisse made his changes. The only due that he had revised it is on the back of the canvas. The turpentine he used to wipe away the black paint from the earlier state soaked through to the reverse and stained this area. Staining on the reverse of the upper fight background suggests that he may have reworked this area as well. On close examination of the paint surface of L'Asie, halos of blue paint can be seen around the upper left and right edges of the figure, suggesting that the background may have once been blue. This area also bears traces of a partial signature: an inscribed 'M', now filled with red paint.





Matisse's alteration of L'Asie confirms his studied and meticulous working methods and his knack for erasing earlier passages while still maintaining the spontaneous appearance of his paint surface. The nature of his revision--almost as if he were cutting away the earlier black shape with scissors and replacing it with a red one--may reflect his new fascination with cutouts, beginning in 1943, to which he would devote his energies in his final years.

(1) The Kimbell Art Museum Policy Statement June 1, 1966, Patricia Cummings Loud In Pursuit of Quality: The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1987, p. 318. The founders came to a conservation programme through their reliance on the professionalism of Richard Brown, who had trained at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, where conservation was a major concern, and who had also worked with a conservation department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before coming to the Kimbell.

(2) Ibid., p.324.

(3) Perry Huston, conversation with the author, August 17, 2007.

(4) J. Paul Getty and Paul Mellon were among his clients.

(5) Doubts over the painting's authenticity were decisively overturned thanks in part to the efforts of John Brealey and Pieter Meyers, conservation scientist at the Metropolitan Museum, among others.

(6) The Times, October 8, 1986.

(7) See also Keith Christiansen, 'Titianus (Per) Fecit', APOLLO, vol. CXXV, no. 301, March 1987, pp. 190-97.

(8) Denis Mahon, 'Fresh light on Caravagglo's earliest period: his 'Cardsharps' rediscovered', The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXX, no. 1018, January 1988, p. 10-27.

(9) John Richardson, 'Crimes Against the Cubists' in The New York Review of Books, June, 1983, p. 32.

(10) George Bisacca at the Metropolitan Museum carried out the structural treatment of the panel in 1986.

(11) Carl Brandon Strehlke and David Skipsey, 'Fra Angelico', Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. LXXXVIII, no. 376, 1993, pp. 4-26.

(12) Laurence B. Kanter, 'A Rediscovered Panel by Fra Angelico', Paragone, vol. II, series 3, no. 29, 2000, pp. 3-13.

(13) In autoradiography, the painting is briefly exposed to a field of thermal neutrons that interact with some of the elements in the pigments, such as manganese in umber and copper in azurite, which in turn emit charged particles. These particles can be detected when film is placed on top of the painting. Sequential exposures of the painting to film over a two-month period produce a series of autoradiographs. These films reveal the presence and location of differing elements, documenting the artist's use of particular pigments.

(14) The fourth autoradiograph documented the presence of manganese, a mineral found in dark ochres and umber.

(15) The photograph was provided from the collection of Matisse's grandson, Claude Duthuit and the Matisse Archives, Paris.

(16) Alfred Barr, Mattise: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, p. 503.

(17) Verve, vol. VI, nos. 21-22, 1948, p. 21

(18) Yve-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso, Paris, 1998, p. 204
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Author:Barry, Claire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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