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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Art Restorers

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Nothing lasts forever, and that includes expensive and beloved works of art, which can be damaged through accident or over time through natural decay. Fortunately, the efforts of a skilled art conservator or restorer can extend the lives of such pieces and keep them looking beautiful for a very long time.

Art conservation refers to the process of maintaining works of art against future damage, while restoration more often refers to repairing damage that has already occurred. Many professionals are adept at both. For those on the outside, the work these experts perform can seem either romantic and rewarding, or painstaking and nerve-wracking. We talked to several experts in the field for their insight about what goes into keeping art beautiful. 

1. CONTEMPORARY ART CAN BE HARDER TO RESTORE THAN OLD MASTERS.

One might think that centuries-old paintings, with their layers of accumulated grime, would be harder to restore than works done much more recently. But Barbara Bertieri, a painting conservator and restorer in New York City who represents Fine Arts Conservation Inc along with Abraham Joel, says that’s not the case.

“With Old Masters,” she says, “the artists were trained in certain ways, and were very good at preparing pigments and canvas.” Because the older painting techniques are so well-established, they are quite familiar to restorers, as are the means of repairing such works. Contemporary art, though, can be much more unpredictable, and include all sorts of materials. “You never know what you’re facing,” Barbara says. “There can be water-soluble paint, oils and even objects in the same painting.” That can make the work a much bigger challenge. 

2. THE ART MARKET DRIVES A LOT OF BUSINESS. 

Steve Tatti, a sculpture conservator in Manhattan, has seen his fair share of clients, from museums to private collectors to entire municipalities. Increasingly, he says, restoration is driven by private collectors looking to cash in on their investments, rather than larger institutions.

“A lot of the time, someone wants to sell something and it has not been maintained,” he says. In that case, the client will hire a restorer to make the necessary repairs so that the piece will bring the best price at auction. Other times, economic trends may open up a whole new market. Barbara and Abraham say they cater to a sector of the Indian art market that has only cropped up in the last 10 to 15 years, due to the growth of the Indian economy and a new interest in art there.

3. SO DOES NATURE. 

Often it’s the inevitable damage done by natural forces that brings work to a restorer’s door. Many of the pieces at Barbara and Abraham’s studio bear cracks, tenting, and discoloration that are the result of changes in humidity, temperature, light, and age. Steve, whose company specializes in outdoor sculpture, grapples even more directly with the effects of nature in the course of his work. Marble and stone melt away over time due to acidity and pollution in the air, while brownstone, he says, “explodes in layers.” Bronze holds up better, though oxidation does eventually take a toll.

4. SO, UNFORTUNATELY, DOES HUMAN ERROR. 

Mistakes happen, but they can be all the more dire when a piece of art worth thousands or millions of dollars is involved. High turnover in auction houses and warehouses can sometimes lead to accidents, and even works in museums can be subject to misfortune. Barbara describes a situation where a client’s piece fell from its frame to the floor and broke because it was framed incorrectly. Steve says he commonly encounters clients who take the idea of outdoor art a bit too literally and “will put a sculpture outside and think that it needs no maintenance,” leading to more serious damage later on. 

5. THEY HAVE TO VIEW THINGS IN THE RIGHT LIGHT. 

Restorations that look great in one type of lighting can be glaringly obvious in another. For this reason, Barbara and Abraham make sure to look at their work under as many different artificial and natural lighting conditions as possible (they also emphasize the need to look at a repair from as many angles as possible).

UV light is also a common tool in a restorer’s arsenal. Light within the ultraviolet range causes organic materials, and some inorganic ones, to auto-fluoresce (or glow, basically) at different levels of intensity, depending on their age and when they were applied, revealing even skillfully done touch-ups. This can help the restorer understand what kind of work has already been done on a piece. 

6. THEY BORROW FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES.

In addition to artistic implements such as brushes and paint, and high-tech devices like UV, infrared light, and x-ray, restorers also borrow items from unrelated fields. “This industry is not big enough that they are going to make everything we need specially for us,” Barbara says, “so we end up borrowing from a lot of other places.” This includes using scalpels, droppers, and clamps from the medical industry, picks from dentistry, tweezers from jewelers, and even polyester sailcloth for backing damaged paintings.

7. SOMETIMES THE BEST TOOL IS NO TOOL. 

A conservator’s accumulated knowledge and intuition can be their most useful tool. Steve says that his training in Florence in the 1970s focused on a holistic approach that relies primarily on his senses. “I rely on my eye, my touch, my taste, my sense,” he says, explaining that he can also knock on a metal sculpture and tell what type of metal it is made of, or touch a piece of stone and determine what it is based on its temperature. He allows that this ability is not necessarily so magical—it’s just a product of experience. “Even guys who work in scrap metal can do the same thing,” he says. 

8. THEY KNOW WHEN TO LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE. 

An important part of being a skilled conservator is knowing when it’s better not to interfere. “Very little should be done to paper,” Abraham says. He stresses that overzealous treating or bleaching a discoloration on the border of a work on paper risks ruining the whole thing, particularly if the central image itself looks okay. Likewise, applying a varnish with the intent of protecting a painting risks changing the color saturation or character of the work. And over-cleaning of a painting with a harsh solvent can lift away pigment that cannot be returned.

9. THEY CAN GET LONELY, AND SOMETIMES A BIT OBSESSIVE.

While the work of a dealer involves a lot of interaction with clients and schmoozing, the job of an art restorer can be a solitary one requiring long hours in close communion with artworks. “We don’t get to speak to a lot of people in a typical day,” Barbara explains. “It’s just you and your work.” And that work can be extremely exacting. Barbara explains that restorers can become “almost obsessed. If you are in a gallery and you see someone looking very closely at a painting,” she says, “that is probably a restorer.” 

10. THEIR JOB CAN BE HAZARDOUS.

While the use of such materials is on the decline, art restoration has historically involved hazardous solvents and other substances. Barbara notes it was once common practice for restorers to clean their hands in acetone, turpentine, and mineral spirits, materials known to irritate or damage the skin, lungs, and mucous membranes. 

Working environments, too, can be difficult. Steve’s company was tasked with removing two murals by the artist Carybé from a JFK Airport terminal while it was being prepped for demolition and lacking heat in the middle of winter. Plus, when deadlines are looming, or there’s some kind of emergency, art conservators will often work all night. 

11. THERE IS USUALLY NO SCRIPT TO FOLLOW.

For a restorer, jobs like the removal of the Carybé mural from the wall of JFK Airport can have no precedent. Each mural weighed one ton, was nearly 17 feet tall and over 50 feet long, and was deeply integrated into the wall structure. Steve describes being uncertain if the murals would disintegrate while being removed. “It was a once in a lifetime experience,” he says, but “beyond nerve wracking—more like an out-of-body experience. There was no way to prepare for it. No way to plan for it. Either you have to be up for these things, or ...” 

12. SOMETIMES THEY UNCOVER FAKES.

The shadowy world of art fakes and forgeries provides fodder for news stories as well as books and movies, but these stories are considerably less fun for buyers and others on the receiving end. It sometimes falls to the conservator to break the bad news to a client. Abraham describes working on a collection of paintings being represented to a Far East collector as 15th-17th century works by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, and others, only to have x-rays reveal that they were actually 19th century copies. On the flip side, sometimes a conservator has the happy experience of proving a painting’s provenance. A highlight for Barbara and Abraham’s Fine Arts Conservation was revealing the signature on Antoine Dubost’s 1804 work Sword of Damocles during cleaning. 

13. SOMETIMES THEY CREATE FAKES.

Occasionally the best way to protect a valuable piece of public art from the elements is simply to bring it indoors. Many institutions and municipalities, particularly in Europe, have made the decision to place original works in more protective surroundings and to create a copy in hardier materials for outdoor display. Steve calls this practice “the greatest solution for outdoor conservation.” His team was responsible both for restoring the figure of Lady Baltimore on the 1814 Baltimore Battle Monument and for creating the replica figure that currently stands on the monument (the original was brought to Maryland’s Historical Society). They are carrying out similar work on the wooden figure of St. Paul that graced the top of St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, which will be fully restored, moved indoors, and replaced by a resin replica.

14. NO PUBLICITY IS OFTEN THE SAME AS GOOD PUBLICITY.

The work of a skilled restorer is often invisible, taking place deep behind the scenes, and is aimed at erasing damage done to art rather than drawing any attention to it. Abraham points out that silence is often a sign of a job well done. “If you do your work well, nobody knows about it,” he says. 

15. THE BEST CLIENTS ARE THE ONES WHO LOVE ART. 

While many in the business say art collecting is becoming increasingly commodity-driven, there are still collectors who are motivated by a love of art itself. Collectors with a strong passion are Barbara’s favorite: She explains that those who view art as an investment can be more frustrated by damage to their property than glad to find a professional who knows how to fix it. They can also focus too much on the fact that the value will not be the same as before. Art lovers, on the other hand, “think of [restorers] as someone who rescues their treasure. They thank us so much, it’s good for us.”

All photos courtesy iStock.

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15 Things You Should Know About Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe’s enchanting floral still lifes are now a deeply ingrained part of American culture—so much so that they often eclipse her other colorful accomplishments. For a more complete portrait of the artist, who was born 130 years ago today, brush up on these 15 little-known facts about her.

1. FLOWER PAINTINGS MAKE UP A SMALL PERCENTAGE OF O'KEEFFE'S BODY OF WORK.

Though O'Keeffe is most famous for her lovingly rendered close-ups of flowers—like Black Iris and Oriental Poppies—these make up just about 200 of her 2000-plus paintings. The rest primarily depict landscapes, leaves, rocks, shells, and bones.

2. SHE REJECTED SEXUAL INTERPRETATIONS OF HER PAINTINGS.

For decades, critics assumed that O'Keeffe's flowers were intended as homages—or at the very least, allusions—to the female form. But in 1943, she insisted that they had it all wrong, saying, “Well—I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” So there.

3. SHE WAS NOT A NATIVE OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST.


Joe Raedle/Getty Images

O'Keeffe was actually born on a Wisconsin dairy farm. She'd go on to live in Chicago; New York City; New York’s Lake George; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Amarillo, Texas. She first visited New Mexico in 1917, and as she grew older, her trips there became more and more frequent. Following the death of her husband in 1946, she moved to New Mexico permanently.

4. HER FAVORITE STUDIO WAS THE BACKSEAT OF A MODEL-A FORD.

In an interview with C-SPAN, Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, explained how the artist customized her car for this use: "She would remove the driver's seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford."

Painting inside the car allowed O'Keeffe to stay out of the unrelenting desert sun, where she painted many of her later works. The Model-A also provided a barrier from the bees that would gather as the day wore on.

5. O'KEEFFE ALSO PAINTED SKYSCRAPERS.

While nature was her main source of inspiration, the time she spent in 1920s Manhattan spurred the creation of surreal efforts like New York With Moon, City Night and The Shelton with Sunspots.

6. O'KEEFFE IMMERSED HERSELF IN NATURE ...

While in New Mexico O’Keeffe spent summers and falls at her Ghost Ranch, putting up with the region's hottest, most stifling days in order to capture its most vivid colors. (The rest of the year she stayed at her second home, located in the small town of Abiquiu.) When she wasn't painting in her Model-A, O'Keeffe often camped out in the harsh surrounding terrain, to keep close to the landscapes that inspired her.

7. …WHATEVER THE WEATHER.

The artist would rig up tents from tarps, contend with unrelenting downpours, and paint with gloves on when it got too cold. She went camping well into her 70s and enjoyed a well-documented rafting trip with photographer Todd Webb at age 74. Her camping equipment is occasionally exhibited at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

8. SHE MARRIED THE MAN BEHIND HER FIRST GALLERY SHOW.

"At last, a woman on paper!" That’s what modernist photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz cried when he first saw O'Keeffe's abstract charcoal drawings. He was so enthusiastic about this series of sketches that he put them on display—before consulting their creator.

When O'Keeffe arrived at his gallery, she wasn't pleased, and brusquely introduced herself: "I am Georgia O'Keeffe and you will have to take these pictures down." Despite their rocky beginnings, Stieglitz and O'Keeffe quickly made amends, and went on to become partners in art and in life.

9. O'KEEFFE AND STIEGLITZ WROTE 25,000 PAGES OF LOVE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER.

When the pair met in 1916, he was famous and married; she was unknown and 23 years his junior. All the same, they began writing to each other often (sometimes two or three times a day) and at length (as many as 40 pages at a time). These preserved writings chart the progression of their romance—from flirtation to affair to their marriage in 1924—and even document their marital struggles.

10. SHE SERVED AS A MUSE TO OTHER ARTISTS.

Thanks in part to Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was one of the most photographed women of the 20th century. Stieglitz made O'Keeffe the subject of a long-term series of portraits meant to capture individuals as they aged, and she made for a striking model. Though he died in 1946, the project lived on as other photographers sought out O'Keeffe in order to capture the beloved artist against the harsh New Mexican landscapes she loved so dearly.

O'Keeffe later wrote:

When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is. It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives. If the person in the photographs were living in this world today, she would be quite a different person—but it doesn't matter—Stieglitz photographed her then.

11. SHE QUIT PAINTING THREE TIMES.

The first break spanned several years (the exact number is a matter of debate), when O'Keeffe took on more stable jobs to help her family through financial troubles. In the early 1930s, a nervous breakdown led to her hospitalization, and caused her to set aside her brushes for more than a year.

In the years leading up to her death in 1986, failing eyesight forced O'Keeffe to give up painting entirely. Until then, she fought hard to keep working, enlisting assistants to prepare her canvas and mix her oil paints for pieces like 1977's Sky Above Clouds/Yellow Horizon and Clouds. She managed to use watercolors until she was 95.

12. AFTER GOING BLIND, SHE TURNED TO SCULPTING.


By Alfred Stieglitz - Phillips, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Although her vision eventually made painting impossible, O'Keeffe's desire to create was not squelched. She memorably declared, "I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O'Keeffe began experimenting with clay sculpting in her late 80s, and continued with it into her 96th year.

13. SHE'S THE MOTHER OF AMERICAN MODERNISM.

Searching for what she called “the Great American Thing,” O'Keeffe was part of the Stieglitz Circle, which included such lauded early modernists as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen. By the mid-1920s, she had become the first female painter to gain acclaim alongside her male contemporaries in New York's cutthroat art world. Her distinctive way of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem simultaneously familiar and new earned her a reputation as a pioneer of the form.

14. SHE BLAZED NEW TRAILS FOR FEMALE ARTISTS.

In 1946, O’Keeffe became the first woman to earn a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Twenty-four years later, a Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective exhibit introduced her work to a new generation. Fifteen years after that, O'Keeffe was included in the inaugural slate of artists chosen to receive the newly founded National Medal of Arts for her contribution to American culture.

15. SHE WASN'T FEARLESS, BUT SHE REJECTED FEAR.

O'Keeffe was purported to have said, "I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do."

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11 Fascinating Facts About Claude Monet
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Oscar-Claude Monet is beloved for his series of oil paintings depicting water lilies, serene gardens, and Japanese footbridges. The French painter manipulated light and shadow to portray landscapes in a groundbreaking way, upending the traditional art scene in the late 19th century. In honor of his birthday, here are 11 things you might not know about the father of French Impressionism.

1. HIS ARTISTIC TALENT WAS EVIDENT AT AN EARLY AGE.

Born in Paris in 1840, Monet began drawing as a young boy, sketching his teachers and neighbors. He attended a school of the arts and, as a young teenager, sold his charcoal caricatures of local figures. He also learned about oil painting and en plein air (outdoors) painting, which later became a hallmark of his style. Monet’s mother encouraged his artistic talent, but his father, who owned a grocery store, wanted him to focus on the grocery business. After his mother died in 1857, Monet left home to live with his aunt and, against his father’s wishes, study art.

2. HE SERVED AS A SOLDIER IN ALGERIA.

In 1861, Monet was drafted into the army. Forced to join the First Regiment of African Light Cavalry, he left Paris for Algeria, a territory that was then controlled by France. Monet's father offered to pay for his son’s discharge if he would promise to give up painting, but Monet refused to abandon art. After serving one year of his seven-year military commitment, Monet got sick with typhoid fever. His aunt paid to get him released from the army, and she enrolled him in art school in Paris.

3. HE WAS SO FRUSTRATED WITH LIFE THAT HE JUMPED INTO THE SEINE.

In his late 20s, Monet was frustrated with the Académie, France’s art establishment. He hated creating formulaic artwork, copying the art that hung in the Louvre, and painting scenes from ancient Greek and Roman myths. Although he tried to get his paintings into the Académie’s art exhibits, his art was almost always rejected. Depressed and struggling to support himself and his family financially, Monet jumped off a bridge in 1868. He survived his fall into the Seine and began spending time with other artists who also felt frustrated by the Académie’s restrictions.

4. RENOIR CREATED A META PAINTING OF HIM.


Renoir's "Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil." Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

In 1873, Monet was spending his summer in a rented home in Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. His friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Monet to spend time together and paint outdoors. The two men connected over their mutual dislike of the traditional style of the Académie. During his visit, Renoir painted Monet painting in his garden, creating a painting within a painting. The painting, straightforwardly called Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, depicts Monet standing outside as he paints flowers.

5. HE INDIRECTLY HELPED COIN THE TERM "IMPRESSIONISM."

Monet created a community with other frustrated artists, a group that included Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne. The group, which called itself The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., organized an exhibition in 1874. The exhibition included groundbreaking artwork featuring bright, vivid colors and loose, seemingly spontaneous brushwork. After a critic compared one of Monet’s paintings—"Impression, Sunrise"—to an unfinished sketch (or "impression"), the term "Impressionists" caught on to describe the artists who displayed these radically different, new paintings.

6. HIS SECOND WIFE WAS IRRATIONALLY JEALOUS OF HIS FIRST WIFE.

Monet frequently painted his first wife, Camille Doncieux, who worked as a model and had been in a relationship with the artist since the mid 1860s (they married in 1870). The couple had two sons, but Camille died, perhaps of uterine cancer, in 1879. Alice Hoschedé, the wife of a businessman and art collector, had been living with the Monets after her husband went bankrupt, and Monet may have started an affair with her while Camille was still alive. After Camille's death, Hoschedé jealously destroyed all of her letters and photographs. Despite this, Hoschedé (along with her six children) lived with Monet and his two kids, and the couple married in 1892 after Hoschedé’s husband died. (Fun fact: One of Hoschedé’s daughters later married one of Monet’s sons, so the step-siblings became husband and wife.)

7. HE IMPORTED HIS WATER LILIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD.

From 1883 until his death in 1926, Monet lived in Giverny, a village in northern France. Over the years, he hired gardeners to plant everything from poppies to apple trees in his garden, turning it into a beautiful, tranquil place for him to paint. Finally wealthy from sales of his paintings, Monet invested serious money into his garden. He put a Japanese footbridge across his pond, which he famously painted, and he imported water lilies from Egypt and South America. Although the local city council told him to remove the foreign plants so they wouldn’t poison the water, Monet didn’t listen. For the last 25 years of his life, he painted the water lilies in a series of paintings that showcased the plants in varying light and textures.

8. HE PAID A GARDENER TO DUST HIS WATER LILIES.

As Monet’s garden expanded, he hired six full-time employees to tend to it. One gardener’s job was to paddle a boat onto the pond each morning, washing and dusting each lily pad. Once the lilies were clean, Monet began painting them, trying to capture what he saw as the light reflected off the water.

9. HIS CRITICS MOCKED HIS VISION PROBLEMS.


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Around 1908 when he was in his late 60s, Monet began having trouble with his vision. Diagnosed with cataracts in 1912, he later described his inability to see the full color spectrum: "Reds appeared muddy to me, pinks insipid, and the intermediate or lower tones escaped me." When he became legally blind in 1922, he continued painting by memorizing the locations of different colors of paint on his palette. Monet delayed getting risky cataract surgery until 1923, and critics mocked him for his blurry paintings, suggesting that his Impressionist style was due to his failing vision rather than his artistic brilliance. After two cataract surgeries, Monet wore tinted glasses to correct his distorted color perception and may have been able to see ultraviolet light.

10. IN 2015, THE WORLD DISCOVERED A NEW MONET PASTEL.

In 2015, an art dealer in London discovered an unknown Monet pastel that had been hidden behind another Monet drawing that he had bought at a 2014 auction in Paris. The pastel depicts the lighthouse and jetty in Le Havre, the port in France where Monet lived as a child. Art scholars authenticated the pastel as an authentic Monet artwork and dated it to 1868, around the time he jumped into the Seine.

11. TOURISTS CAN VISIT HIS HOME AND GARDENS.


MIGUEL MEDINA // AFP // Getty Images

In 1926, Monet died of lung cancer. Starting in 1980, his former home in Giverny has been open to tourists to see his gardens, woodcut prints, and mementos. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Giverny to walk through the artist’s famous garden and refurbished home. Besides looking at a variety of flowers and trees, visitors can also see Monet’s bedroom, studio, and blue sitting-room.

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