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From the Bench: New Discoveries from What Lies Beneath

October 16, 2012 ET

This post is part of the “From the Bench series celebrating the work of conservators. Part scientist, part detective, part artisan, part caretaker, they work to preserve the past for the future. This series features the voices of conservators who are working on IMLS-supported projects in museums across the United States. For more information about IMLS funding for museums see www.imls.gov/applicants/available_grants.aspx.

By Nancie Ravenel, Objects Conservator, Shelburne Museum

While there are two conservators on staff at Shelburne Museum to take care of its day-to-day conservation needs, some projects within the museum’s diverse collection require the talents of a specialized conservator. With funding from IMLS in 2010, we were able to hire paintings conservator Pamela Betts for 17 months to examine and treat a selection of paintings from the 50 best in our collection. In the course of her examinations, Pam made some very interesting discoveries. Here are a few:

  • A portrait of a woman hidden beneath a still life depicting oysters and a glass of ale painted sometime between 1855-1870 by Charles D. Sauerwein  revealed in an x-radiograph.
  • An x-radiograph showed that Henry Durrie had included his hands and maybe an artist’s palette in his self-portrait painted 1830-1839, but they were later painted out.
  • The local hospital that helps us out with the x-rays archives the digital radiographs that they take of the objects in our collection. Their radiological technologists know the paintings by their radiographs but may not know what they look like on the wall!
  • Using two different methods of infrared photography, Pam documented compositional changes that Jasper F. Cropsey made to his 1844 landscape painting depicting Greenwood Lake.
  • We found that it is possible to get reasonable infrared images of painting underdrawings by putting the appropriate filter on our digital camera. Expensive equipment isn't always required.
  • The ornate Rococo-style frame on Rembrandt Peale’s Girl with a Tuscan Hat is at least the same period as the painting if it is not original to it.

Paintings conservator Pamela Betts (right) discusses her progress on William Merritt Chase’s portrait of General James Watson Webb (1880, collection of Shelburne Museum) with curatorial fellow Erin Corrales-Diaz.

Since 1986, Shelburne Museum has had the honor of being awarded 16 Conservation Project Support grants. These have run the gamut of the activities supported:

  • improving environmental systems and storage furniture
  • conservation surveys and treatment
  • training both for new conservators and the conservators on staff

The common tie among the projects is that grants from IMLS have allowed us to innovate and collaborate in ways that would not have been otherwise possible and confer benefits for years after the project is complete. We’re excited to be able to share these discoveries with our visitors, especially those radiological technologists from the hospital who learn about the paintings in Shelburne Museum’s collection through their x-rays.