MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So the House of Representatives maintains a pretty sizable collection of art, but just down the street, you'll find a place that's home to a veritable bounty. The National Gallery of Art has about 4,000 paintings and over time, things like sunlight, humidity and your run-of-the-mill grime can really take their toll on these works of art. So each year, a team of conservators culls through those thousands of paintings and picks out just a dozen to restore to their natural beauty. And as you've probably guessed, that process can be pretty long and painstaking.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Kavitha Cardoza visited the National Gallery's head of conservation to learn more about the science behind this work and why it's worth all the effort.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
Carol Christensen is a conservator at the National Gallery of Art, but she doesn't want you to know what she does.
MS. CAROL CHRISTENSEN
Unfortunately, the only way that someone would know that you worked on the paintings is if you did a really bad job.
She says in some European galleries, they like to display a painting warts and all, cracked paint, water damage, faded colors.
They feels it's part of the history of the picture as an object, but our philosophy here is that the painting is a visual illusion and its function is impaired if you show all the damage.
So she and other conservators here painstakingly work on tiny sections of a painting sometimes the size of a postage stamp for weeks at a time, trying to restore it to its original glory. Today, she's working on a picture of monks.
We're looking at a painting by an unknown 15th century painter from France and it shows one of the miracles of St. Benedict.
The saint senses a young monk is drowning and sends another monk, Marius, out to rescue him. Marius is able to reach him in time by walking on water. As with most old paintings, there's a layer of varnish to remove.
We use this thing that looks like a giant Q-tip. We'll dip it in solvent and roll it against the picture.
Artists use varnish as a final coat to make colors look rich and as a protective layer. Unfortunately, when natural varnish ages...
It creates sort of a yellow film over the whole painting's surface and that is especially distorting with paintings that have cool tones because blues become green, whites become yellow.
Christensen uses a gentle chemical that dissolves the varnish, but not the paint.
Before the 20th century, the kinds of things that people used to take off these discolored varnishes were very harsh materials like lye, urine.
Because it's acidic?
It's acidic, right.
When Christensen works on a painting, she has an array of paint solvents and gels nearby as well as tools such as a tiny paint brush to fill in cracks.
It looks very much like an eyeliner brush.
A scalpel is used to gently scrape glue off the back of a painting and Japanese tissue paper to delicately mend torn canvas, but she says scientific advances have helped conservators immensely, including x-radiography. Christensen points to what looks exactly like an x-ray of the painting.
One of the major pigments used by all artists is lead white. Any time lead white is mixed into paint, to varying degrees that paint becomes opaque to x-rays.
So areas where there's a lot of lead white, like the light blue sky, look white. The monk's black robe looks black.
So you get a sort of a negative image of the picture.
Conservators also use infra-red reflectography, which works on the principle that black absorbs heat and white reflects it. So on the computer monitor, you can actually see through to the artist's drawing underneath all the layers of paint.
There were two little monks drawn in here walking away and the artist decided to paint them out later on. So you sort of can get inside the artist's mind a little bit.
So unlike the artist who usually takes ownership of a painting by boldly signing his or her name on it, conservators are content to get no credit. Viewers will never know about the reams of research done, the millions of spidery cracks that have been filled or the colors that have been what's called in-painted before the painting is displayed again. And that's fine with Christensen.
Your own skills as a painter are not important unless they're in the service of getting the vision of the artist across. You have to be humble in a way. There are some in the field who have felt that really good artists don't make good restorers because they may be a little bit too free in rearranging what they don't like.
So months and months on a painting that isn't even well known?
It's not a Leonardo, yeah.
But Christensen says it's beautiful to look at and also it's part of our history.
It's evidence of our past, where we came from and to know how we got from there to here and that's part of the journey.
A journey that includes a stop in the hushed room where Christensen and her colleagues do the behind the scenes work that almost no art lovers will ever see. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.
You can see photos of Carol Christensen at work and that painting of "The Miracle of St. Benedict" on our website, metroconnection.org
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