Taking care of HMA's art collection

In addition to safe and appropriate storage for its art, the Museum provides a range of maintenance, from routine framing to extensive repairs of damage from aging or other reasons. This is consistent with HMA’s Collections Management Policy that lists "preservation and conservation of its collection" as our first obligation. It is also consistent with national standards for the care of cultural collections such as art.

A complex example of HMA restoration was William Starkweather's Late Afternoon Light Painted at Essex, Mass in 1915 which was undertaken in late 1988 so that the work could be included in HMA's 1989 Starkweather (1876-1969) retrospective show. The documentation of the process is detailed.

Peeling away the pre-1954 linen lining from original canvas without disturbing the oil paint.

Peeling away the pre-1954 linen lining from original canvas without disturbing the oil paint.

The professional restorer's initial report was grim, "The painting is in very poor condition. It was painted on poor quality canvas. There are extensive tears with many missing areas of canvas along the edges. The very weak, brittle and torn canvas has been lined onto a new piece of linen, probably using a wax-resin mixture ... without repairing of the original canvas. ... The entire painting is covered with a coat of grime and discolored varnish." It is likely that the first efforts at preservation were undertaken by Starkweather himself, since it is known that during the last 20 or so years of his life he "would continue to travel and paint and ... restore his paintings , an inch at a time." (From the 1989 exhibition catalog.)

The restoration included (above) patching up and strengthening the old canvas with a new backing, as well as cleaning with specialized chemicals and re-touching the paint. The new paint will blend with the original, but is different enough that it is easily distinguishable by a restorer. The results are dramatic: the painting is now visibly brighter, its edges are undamaged, and the work can be handled without disintegrating.

It is interesting to consider the diagrams of the multiple layers of the painting, including the chronological inter-weaving of the several conservation projects. (1954 is when Starkweather donated the painting to HMA.)

After the earlier lining had been removed, it was discovered that the painting had originally had a different title, Old New England.

This painting and others of HMA's Starkweather works will be on display between October 31, 2015 and August 14, 2016 in the Paul Whitener Gallery.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.