When Maximilian Schele De Vere arrived in Scott Nolley’s art conservation studio in Richmond, he was in rough shape.
Covered in years’ worth of dust, tobacco residue and coal-fire furnace soot, Schele De Vere—or rather his portrait, rendered in oil paint on canvas by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume circa 1887—had fallen against a trash can and suffered a large, jagged tear and significant structural damage from exposure to uncontrolled temperature and humidity in a University of Virginia pavilion basement. The painting, which had once hung on a pavilion wall, sat untouched in UVA’s collection for years.
“Collect, Care, Conserve, Curate: The Life of the Art Object”
The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
Through July 23
“To the uneducated eye, it looked like a total loss,” says Nolley, who has been an art conservator for more than 35 years and has done conservation work for UVA and its Fralin Museum of Art, as well as for Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“When something comes to that level of damage, it’s a bit of a tipping point,” Nolley says. “The decision is made whether it’s worth the attention or if they’re just going to let it go.”
Guillaume, regarded by many as one of the best portrait artists working in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War, was based mostly in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, so Nolley has seen a fair number of Guillaume paintings come through his studio. The artist was known for his “tiny, delicate, draftsmanship-like brushstrokes” and “deftly modulated, incredibly sensitive” colors, says Nolley. When you get up close to a Guillaume painting, details such as the highlights on jewelry, buttons or individually rendered whiskers on a mustache are rather breathtaking. “His skills are unchallenged in my world,” says Nolley, so seeing this portrait of Schele De Vere in storage and “in this condition was just heartbreaking.”
Not only is Guillaume a significant painter in American art history, the subject, Schele De Vere, is an important figure in UVA history—hired in 1844, the Swedish-born professor taught modern language classes at the university for more than 50 years.
After 110 hours of technical work that required extensive knowledge of chemistry and art history, “Maximillian Schele De Vere” is back on display at the University of Virginia, this time in The Fralin Museum of Art, as part of the “Collect, Care, Conserve, Curate: The Life of the Art Object” exhibit currently on display through July 23.
The details of his journey back include: adhering the painting to a supporting canvas, cleaning off layers of soot, grime and stains using a custom-designed, water-based cleaning system, filling losses to the paint layers and in-painting with pigments dispersed in acrylic resin.
In most fine art museums, pieces come out of storage, go up on the wall or in a case, and then are returned to storage once the exhibit is over. This is certainly true at The Fralin, which has nearly 14,000 objects in its permanent collection, says Jean Lancaster, The Fralin collections manager who curated the exhibit.
Lancaster is constantly in conversation about The Fralin’s collection with curators, scholars, appraisers, digital imaging specialists and conservators like Nolley. Together they decide, among other things, what to conserve, when to conserve it and how—“The Life of the Art Object” exhibit brings some of those conversations into the public sphere to show how and why some of these decisions are made.
What were they to do about the portrait of a young man that had been attributed to 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt but demonstrated qualities of 20th-century portraiture? An X-ray fluorescence scanner of the painting showed that titanium white pigment—a pigment not used in oil paint until the 1910s—was used for the young man’s lace collar, confirming the suspicion that the painting wasn’t a Rembrandt…but the question of what it was remained.
What about the late 19th-/early 20th-century Chinese export plate that had been repaired with staples by a European china mender? Leave the staples in to show the history of china repair or make it look like new?
The exhibit also afforded Lancaster the opportunity to send some neglected pieces out for conservation, and display ones that had never been on view in the museum—like the oldest textile in the collection, a Peruvian feathered tabard (tunic) covered in brilliant yellow and turquoise parrot and macaw feathers.
Each object has “its own story, its own needs, its own preservation priorities,” says Lancaster. “Art has a life beyond the gallery walls.”
Labels in the exhibit describe the preservation stories, enhancing the viewer’s appreciation, bringing us closer, not just to the artists, but to other viewers, to the people who prayed in front of the “Seven Saints in Adoration” altarpiece from 14th century Siena and to the person who centuries ago brought a brownware ocarina to his lips and blew a soft melody.
“The truth resides in these objects,” says Nolley. “People can rewrite history all they want, [but] they’re not making any more material from these periods; it’s just an impossibility. So returning to and referencing and studying this material is one of the few ways you can directly engage a time period,” he says of the act of viewing these objects. “It’s a very valuable asset to us as a species and a culture,” and it must be preserved.