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'Conserving Canvas': Getty Foundation initiative aims to preserve the art of art conservation itself

'Conserving Canvas': Getty Foundation initiative aims to preserve the art of art conservation itself
"The Blue Boy" canvas being examined at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, prior to a major conservation treatment that begins Sept. 22. (Courtesy, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens)

The field of art conservation addresses the restoration and preservation of often delicate, masterwork paintings on centuries-old canvases. But little attention these days, says the Getty Foundation, is being paid to preserving one aspect of conservation science itself. Treasured knowledge of how to treat lining canvases — a popular technique for centuries of backing canvas paintings with other, blank canvases to stabilize them — is being lost as conservators in the field move toward alternative methods of treating aged canvases.

So the Getty Foundation has launched an international initiative, “Conserving Canvas,” to foster the sharing of long-held knowledge between generations of art conservators. It’s also funding the conservation of major artworks. The first round of grants includes Anthony van Dyck’s “Equestrian Portrait of Charles I” (1637-8) at London’s National Gallery, François Boucher’s “Vertumnus and Pomona” (1757) at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, and Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” (1770), which the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens will begin conservation treatment of in late September.

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“Knowledge is disappearing,” says Getty senior program officer Antoine Wilmering. “It’s a big problem.”

As lining canvases age, they can be damaging to the original paintings they were intended to support and they need to be repaired or replaced. But the craft of lining canvases is tricky – apply too much heat or pressure and the raised paint, or impasto, might flatten or the surface paint layer can become punctured or otherwise distorted.

There becomes a generation gap between conservators with a lifetime of experience and younger, trained conservators ...


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Since the late ’70s and early ’80s the art conservation field has been experimenting with new techniques, such as cold lining, that require less heat and pressure. Many see these somewhat gentler approaches as a positive development.

“But those techniques haven’t been fully tested and who knows what new kinds of problems are introduced with them down the line,” Wilmering says. Many conservators, he says, are shying away from repairing or replacing lining canvases entirely. “Many paintings that were lined in the past, and in need [of restoration], are just not being touched.”

It’s a critical issue with long-lasting implications, Wilmering says.

“There becomes a generation gap between conservators with a lifetime of experience and younger, trained conservators who have never dealt with a lined painting but inevitably will have to,” he says. “So our aim with this initiative is to make sure the knowledge continues.”

Toward that end, “Conserving Canvas” will hold Getty-funded workshops in both Sweden and the Netherlands in 2019, with others planned over the next five years. There will be an international conference for several hundred conservators held at Yale University in October 2019.

The project’s other inaugural grantees include the University of Glasgow in Scotland, Sweden’s Statens Historiska Museer, Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg in the Netherlands and Yale University.

The initiative, Wilmering says, is also concerned with the conservation of modern and contemporary artworks, some of which are made from new and experimental materials. The long-term effects, he says, of mixing paint materials such as house paint with acrylic and oil paint, or mixing in sand, for example, aren’t yet known.

“The field has to be aware that structural interventions here too will be necessary, it’s inevitable,” Wilmering says, “and that knowledge has to continue to exist — and be passed on.”

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