Balboa Park museums do surgery on masterpieces

Life is like a candle and the wind approaches

Betty Court: "Even early in this century, a restorer might sand off the old paint and repaint the whole canvas. That is no longer seen as ethical."
  • Betty Court: "Even early in this century, a restorer might sand off the old paint and repaint the whole canvas. That is no longer seen as ethical."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

TWO SMOKED HERRING LIE ON A ROUND PEWTER PLATE. Their tails are crossed; their eyes wear startled expressions. Behind them stands a small brazier with burning charcoal. Next to the plate an earthenware jug with pewter lid rests on its side, and behind the jug is a tall 24-ounce glass half full of ale that someone has recently been drinking. Between the glass and the fish is a white clay pipe, a pile of tapers, and a small box for tobacco. The wood table is gray; the background is darker gray, almost black.

Peter Claesz, still life, c. 1627. The fish look edible, the ale has bubbles rising toward a ring of froth, the coals in the brazier are red hot.

Peter Claesz, still life, c. 1627. The fish look edible, the ale has bubbles rising toward a ring of froth, the coals in the brazier are red hot.

This is someone’s breakfast, someone who has been called away, perhaps for a moment, perhaps forever. The fish, the jug, the glass, and the brazier form the four points of an X, while the pipe, tapers, and tobacco box rest in the center. The brazier is smoking slightly, cherry red embers glow within the ash.

Laura Downey, assistant paper conservationist

Laura Downey, assistant paper conservationist

The man who has been sitting here has perhaps finished his bread roll and another fish. Wherever he is, whatever he is doing, he thinks about how his pipe and glass of ale are waiting. This is a brief moment from a man’s life in Haarlem in the Netherlands. Beneath the jug on the edge of the table is the monogram of the painter, Pieter Claesz, and a date, 1627.

Sarah Murray. The rosary altar was receiving what Murray called the 200-hour treatment.

Sarah Murray. The rosary altar was receiving what Murray called the 200-hour treatment.

At any moment of our day we leave evidence of our passing: the empty glass, the closed book, the stubbed-out cigarette. Mostly such ephemera pass with us. Perhaps some clothing outlives us for a while, a few pictures, a wedding ring. And perhaps the house or apartment where we live has a brief history: someone occupied it before us, someone will come after. As for us, we were only passing through. And in just such a way, the man in Gaesz’s still life was passing through.

His glass of ale is unfinished, his pipe has yet to be smoked, two herring are left to be eaten. Soon he will return; he will never return.

He has been plucked from the world.

As a Dutch painter, Claesz did nothing but breakfast scenes. A banketje such a scene was called. A fish breakfast scene was called vis ontbijt. A scene with smoking materials was called a toebackje. The Claesz just described mixes all three little genres. The earliest Claesz is dated 1621, painted when he was 24. He died in 1661, and in those 40 years he painted several hundred breakfast scenes. They can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and in many other of the world’s museums. The one described above can be found on the walls of San Diego’s Timken Museum of Art.

You might think it possible to have too many breakfast scenes, but the Dutch would disagree. In the first half of the 17th Century, over 100 Dutch painters produced thousands of breakfast scenes: Willem Claesz Heda, Floris van Schooten, Clara Peeters, and dozens of others. Other Claesz paintings show oyster shells, half-eaten rolls, a half-peeled lemon, a half-eaten pie, nutshells, a casually tossed napkin. And, in case the viewer misses the point, several contain among the breakfast matter a human skull, a few thigh bones: evidence of our passing. Vanitas, they are called, meaning the little objects we gather around us, jewelry, coins, a book or two, the ephemera of a life. Some of the paintings contain a turtle, an emblem of eternity, and some contain the stub of a burning candle, which puts me in mind of the Chinese saying, “Life is like a candle and the wind approaches.” This particular Claesz (pronounced Claus) was being shown to me by Betsy Court, chief conservator of painting at the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC). She dipped a cotton swab in a small container of solvent and touched it against the Claesz monogram on the table edge. The P imposed upon the C leapt out of the gray murk, then an A for Anno and the date: 1627. She touched the swab to the earthenware jug, changing it from a dull brown to a bright ochre. She continued to rub and within moments the jug looked like something painted the day before.

Court was a trim, dark-haired woman with quick blue eyes who joined the staff of the Balboa Art Conservation Center in 1981. Her movements were brisk and concentrated. Over her dress, she wore the light gray smock that seemed to be the uniform of the conservators at the center. The Claesz still life, about 14 by 22 inches, was out of its frame and lay on a table beneath a surgical stereomicroscope. The painting had been at BACC for a month, and it would take another month to finish.

“At this point,” Court told me, “I have removed the old discolored varnish and the old inpainting that no longer matched, but there is a residual varnish down within the interstices of the brushstrokes that is very noticeable in the lighter areas of the tabletop. If I can get that out, I will. If my tests show me — and I’ll be doing this under the microscope — that whatever solvent would be needed to get out that very tough old material would endanger the original paint, then I’ll leave it. Likewise there are some dark stains around some of these old damages that may have to do with the way they were inpainted before, but the original paint is quite thin, and if it looks like I can’t get those dark stains out safely without affecting the original at all, then I’ll leave them and, when I’ve varnished the painting, if the stains show, I’ll just very thinly glaze them out at the inpainting stage so they’re not disfiguring.”

The very term “to inpaint” suggests the ethical concerns that challenge conservators. None of the original is painted over or changed. One only paints within the area of damage.

“Even early in this century,” said Court, “the dominant issue in restoration was to make the painting look new again. A restorer might sand off the old paint and repaint the whole canvas. That is no longer seen as ethical. Now the main idea is the integrity of the work of art, to stabilize the work and keep it as close to what the artist wanted. Nothing can be added or covered up.”

The Balboa Art Conservation Center deals with documents and works on paper; paintings on canvas, wood, and metal; photographic materials; polychrome sculpture; and the restoration and conservation of frames often using a water gilding method developed in the Renaissance. The center is located in the Casa de Balboa on El Prado in Balboa Park.

On another day I talked to John Petersen, general manager of the Timken Museum of Art since January 1996, who has worked at the museum for 24 years. “Before the BACC was formed, we had to send our stuff to Los Angeles or New York or the National Gallery in Washington. It took a lot of time because those institutions gave priority to their own work. And if we had an emergency, forget it.”

In those years, only the biggest museums could afford conservation programs because of the expense of having trained personnel and the expense of the machinery involved. The equipment at the BACC includes surgical stereomicroscopes, x-ray machines modified for artwork, vacuum suction tables to draw moisture and discoloration down into an absorbent material without drying out the paper, vacuum hot tables with air-flow adaptation for lining paintings, microscopes for analytic purposes, photography setups, motorized easels, special lighting equipment, spray booths for spraying varnishes, fume hoods and fume extraction systems, and power tools necessary to build and conserve frames.

In 1975 the Timken museum and the San Diego Museum of Art, with the help of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, established the BACC as a nonprofit corporation. It was one of 13 regional centers formed. Some of the others are in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oberlin, Ohio; Denver, Philadelphia; Honolulu; and Minneapolis. The BACC is the only center between Colorado and Hawaii. It serves 16 museums, including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the Laguna Art Museum; the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities; Hearst Castle; the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla; the Yuma Fine Arts Association; and the City of San Diego, as w^ll as the Timken and the San Diego Museum of Art. The center also accepts work from private owners.

The BACC and other regional centers have internships and fellowships for students who wish to enter graduate programs in art conservation or who are already in graduate programs. The center presently has a staff of nine. Conservators are not only trained in studio work and art history, but also in science. Training is long and arduous, and only three schools in the United States have graduate programs in conservation: the State University of New York at Buffalo, New York University, and the University of Delaware.

“I did my last two years of undergraduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond,” Court told me, “majoring in art history and studio art. In my last year, they happened to have a speaker who was a conservator and she gave a lecture. I saw these photographs of pictures during treatment, and it was love at first sight. Everything came together for me. This was a way of using my manual skills and have hands-on involvement with art, as well as using my art historical and analytical approach. I then, unfortunately, found out that you had to have a lot of science, which had never been my interest, so I had to wait a few years to get into graduate school because I had to take chemistry and organic chemistry at night. In the meantime I apprenticed to a conservator. Then I Anally got into one of the graduate training programs and had five years of training after that. I went to the University of Delaware—Winterthur Museum program, which is a three-year program, two years at Winterthur and one year of internship, which I did half at the National Museum of American Art, part of the Smithsonian, and half at the Balboa Art Conservation Center back in 1980. Then I did a postgraduate year in England at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, which is part of Cambridge University. Then I returned to San Diego.”

On the day I visited, I also talked to Yasuko Ogino, a young woman who had recently received her B.A. in fine art from UCLA. She was testing Ave types of ink on a 19th-century document with tiny bits of blotting paper and an eyedropper to see if any of the inks were water soluble. I asked her if that kind of work didn’t drive her crazy.

“I am very meticulous and I like meticulous work,” she told me. Ogino also makes paper and binds books. She has a 12-month part-time internship at the center to give her the experience to apply to a graduate program. When not at the BACC, she takes classes in chemistry and organic chemistry.

“The Timken sends work over to the BACC all the time,” said John Petersen. “Once they finish the Claesz, I’ll send them our Veronese Madonna and child; then they’ll do four or Ave of our Russian icons. We’re currently having a large show of the work of Conrad Wise Chapman, whose The View of the Valley of Mexico was a fairly recent acquisition. We have 17 pieces. Many were in storage in Richmond for some years, so we asked the BACC to examine them, clean them, and frame them.

“But equally important is the center’s emergency work. Not long ago we had a show of contemporary art. I opened a crate with a painting by James Rosen and water poured out of it. I nearly flipped. There were marks all over it. I called the BACC.”

Betsy Court continued the story. *I ran. With water damage minutes can make a difference. Once the canvas starts to shrink, you’re in big trouble. The painting was staked and had to be put under evenly distributed weight. It had been sitting on a loading dock in the rain. It was essential that we dry it out and keep it from shrinking and warping. Paintings getting wet is one of our biggest emergencies.”

“They made it as good as new," said Petersen. “We were very pleased."

The BACC also investigates possible forgeries. When I visited, Sarah Murray, associate conservator of painting, was working on a 14-century Florentine rosary altar from Hearst Castle with three panels showing the birth of Jesus, the Madonna and child, and the Crucifixion. Its authenticity had been questioned in part because a bit of Prussian blue had been found on the panel. Prussian blue was invented around the year 1700, more than 300 years after the panel had been painted.

“We know how Renaissance paintings were constructed,” said Murray, a young British woman who did her undergraduate and graduate work at Cambridge University and joined the BACC in 1991. “And we know that different pigments date from different times, even though some pigments have been used since the very earliest times.”

The rosary altar was receiving what Murray called the 200-hour treatment. It had been x-rayed and photographed The Prussian blue had apparently come from earlier restoration. The rest of the paint dated from the 14th Century. The panel appeared to be authentic.

“As a matter of fact,” said Murray, “it’s a lot harder to prove something isn’t a fake than that it is.”

But sometimes forgeries are found. Betsy Court showed me a painting on wood depicting St. Francis receiving the stigmata. The painting, which had formerly belonged to the San Diego museum, was attributed to the Renaissance. It easily looked as old as the rosary altar.

“There were certain doubts about this,” said Court. The green in the painting was a chrome green dating from the early 20th Century. X-rays showed that insect damage and burrowings had been repaired from the front of the panel, before the paint had been applied.

Then it turned out that a layer of silk lay between the panel and the paint. When baked, the silk cracks in a way that simulates the cracks found on old paintings. Only the panel itself was from the Renaissance.

“We traced the painting to Federico Joni,” said Court, “who was active in Italy in the 1930s. We were even able to locate Joni’s prefatory drawings for this painting. He did hundreds of forgeries. People have begun to collect them. Actually, he himself began as a restorer, just like one of us. He’s become quite famous. The San Diego museum gave us the painting. We use it in teaching how to discover forgeries.”

I try to imagine the ambition of a conservator who slips over the line and wants to have one of his pictures accepted as the real thing.

“Conservators in training have to make copies,” said Janet Ruggles, chief conservator of paper at BACC since 1982 and general manager since 1993. “You work in museums making copies all day long. We all did it, though mine of my copies would ever threaten anyone. Sometimes, the copies are of such high quality they become accidentally confused with the originals, especially if the original has disappeared.”

On other occasions it may be difficult to distinguish the authorship of two paintings of the same period. We again looked at the Claesz. During the years that Pieter Claesz painted breakfast scenes in Haarlem, Clara Peeters was painting breakfast scenes in Antwerp. She, too, signed her paintings with a monogram — P over C. In some paintings the monograms of the two painters look almost identical.

“We don’t attribute the painting," said Ruggles, “but we’ll help to build a technical background. For instance, if one of those artists used a particular type of paint in the monogram, we would do a full technical exam to supply that information.”

“Actually this painting has something that I have never seen before," said Court.

She explained how the paint and the ground beneath the paint can separate from the wood paneling and begin moving in different directions at infinitesimal speeds.

“Look at this,” she told me.

I bent over the surgical stereomicroscope and focused on the side of the earthenware jug. A row of crystals like grains of sugar were poking through the flecks of paint. They seemed to have emerged from the light blue ground underneath. They might have been there a year or they might have been there 350 years.

“Some paintings have an inherent vice and will self-destruct no matter what you do,” said Court, “and so you worry. I’ve never seen anything like that. Perhaps some earlier restorer tried to fix it after the first damage. It looks like there are little needle holes. I don’t think it’s a problem but it’s interesting.”

“We get excited by all sorts of peculiar things,” said Ruggles cheerfully.

Nothing the conservators do, except cleaning, is irreversible. Before reparation is done, the picture is photographed and analyzed, then coated with an isolating varnish that can be removed, taking the changes with it. Court was still undecided how to treat the crystals, but because they would be covered with the isolating varnish, another conservator could come along in 10, 50, or 100 years, remove Court’s treatment, and solve the problem.

“After I have really decided that I’ve finished cleaning,” said Court, “I’m going to do some little experiments. You saw under the microscope the way the ground was pushing up the paint. I have an idea that if this is a chalk-faced ground, I may be able to soften it with a very mild acidic solution so I can get the paint to go down. So I’ll experiment with that and if I can get that ground To go down, then I will. If I can’t. then I’ll have to accept it as a permanent change in the painting. Then I’ll go on to the next step, which will be an isolating varnish, and what I will be using is a thin layer of a varnish that will mimic the effects of a natural resin varnish as far as saturating or brightening the colors and giving a very pleasing and appropriate gloss to the painting, but which will remain very stable and removable in the future with very mild solvents. And then will come the inpainting stages and, if any of the damages are not level with the surrounding paint, I’ll first fill them with a putty that we make ourselves out of gelatin and chalk and then inpaint with dry pigments mixed in with a synthetic resin, similar to the varnish. We make all our paints here as well. Then I'll do another thin spray coating of varnish to make the gloss uniform, and it has a little bit of an additive in it to protect against ultraviolet light, and that will be the final step before reframing.” One might ask why the Dutch in the first half of the 17th Century should want 20,000 breakfast scenes, some with fish, some without. In each appear the same glasses, wafer glasses and rummers, the same earthenware jugs, the same braziers, the same pewter plates, the same fish and oysters and candlesticks. The 17th Century was a period of growing prosperity for the Dutch. Their trading ships were to be found in every ocean, and they had rich colonies in the New World. Indeed, if one compares early Claesz paintings to middle and late paintings, one sees the earthenware jugs and pewter dishes replaced by silver, the simple glasses exchanged for fine crystal as money poured into the middle-class households. But this was a strict Protestant country. Gone were the religious paintings of the previous century. It was now considered in bad taste and often against the law to paint religious images.

And life was not secure. The Dutch had only recently concluded a truce with Spain after years of fighting. Spanish armies remained on the Dutch border and occasionally attacked Dutch fortresses. Dutch ships were attacked at sea. From 1618 to 1648 most of Europe was caught up in the Thirty Years’ War, the most costly war in terms of life, limb, and property before World War I. Armies swept across Europe carrying plague and destruction, sacking famous cities down to their very last brick. Leaderless armies struck off on their own to ransack cities and ravage the countryside. In Great Britain, both Scotland and Ireland rebelled against Charles I, followed by a bitter civil war that led to Charles’s execution.

Only Holland seemed a little island of peace. But how long might peace last and what did it mean? And so these breakfast scenes became small emblems of peace. They showed what needed to be protected: those brief moments of contentment, the lit pipe, the glass of ale, the loaf of bread, the basket of cheese, oysters and wine and smoked herring. Life’s small pleasures. Europe’s wars were religious wars. What is the center of our religion? asked the Dutch. The home, the hearth, the tranquil half-hour before the beginning of the day. And so the middle-class Dutch bought these breakfast scenes by the thousands. And where a hundred years earlier they might hang a picture of the Crucifixion or the birth of Jesus, now they hung a painting show-ing a table with a half-eaten fruit pie, a tipped-over glass, and perhaps a skull to show all that was passing. Briefly, we have this tranquil moment, then it is gone and we are gone with it. That is why the paintings nearly every one, depict the interrupted moment: the pipe still smoking, the bread half-eaten.

Question: How could Claesz paint hundreds of breakfast scenes for 40 years and not go nuts? Answer He didn’t. If one looks closely at the Timken Claesz, looks past the smoked herring, the ale and smoking

coals, one sees a vast display of Xs and Os, almost like a tic-tac-toe game, set against the horizontal and vertical lines of the table. Claesz must have laughed at this. The objects in the picture form a large X; then there are many little Xs. The two fish make an X, a knife and the shadow of the jug make an X, two tapers make an X, the tapers and the pipe make an X, the handles and supports of the

brazier make an X. As for the circles, the pewter plate and the brazier make the same oval. The top of the glass and the tobacco box make ovals. The jug and its lid make several circles that are echoed by the circular bowl of the pipe. On and on. What interested Claesz was the abstract design of Xs and Os and how to use them to create a sense of depth and balance, which he varies in painting after painting. And he also loved light.

"In this painting," said Court, “it is very clear that there is a fascination with the way light reflects on different kinds of surfaces. You have this very smooth cold metal, and you have the fish and the fire and smoke and the glass and the earthenware, and you have all these different kinds of materials and how light reflects on them. Light had a real fascination for the Dutch artists, particularly those who were known for their rendering of surfaces and textures.”

These are the traces of a man we know almost nothing about. He was born in Burgsteinfurt in Westphalia, then he moved to Haarlem. On May 21,1617, he married the daughter of Geertje Hendricks. Less than a year later a daughter, Riekje, was born, and two years later a son, Claes, who became a painter under the name of Nicolaas Berchem. Pieter Claesz lived in a small house near the River Spaame and painted banketje, but whether he was a happy man or a sad man, a good man or a bad man, all that has now vanished into history. He liked to make little jokes with Xs and Os. While his contemporaries Rembrandt and Frans Hals were painting portraits of rich burghers and pictures on grand themes, Claesz was perfecting his skill with the oyster and the beer glass. He lived to celebrate the passing moment. And at that time still lifes weren’t taken seriously. They were light an. The painter De Lairesse in 1740 called them a genre for the “weak minded.” Claesz’s profession was listed as “common painter."

With the yellow varnish gone, the Pieter Claesz still life again presents a breakfast scene that seems only a few minutes old. The fish look edible, the ale has bubbles rising toward a ring of froth, the coals in the brazier are red hot. The white of the clay pipe and tapers, the white of the knife handle shimmer. The reflection of the herring in the polished pewter plate glistens. The painting looks as it must have done 370 years ago. What is astonishing, now that it has been cleaned, is that it again celebrates the moment. No longer does it appear antique and fuddy-duddy. It seems ongoing. The interrupted breakfast to which it testifies might have been this morning. The painting is no longer about the past; it is about now, this moment that slides by even as we watch.

The Timken has its famous Rembrandt and Frans Hals. Its strength is that it also has a Claesz. “It is our only vanitas painting,” said Petersen, “and we would like another.”

But the art market has changed drastically in the past 15 years. “We opened in 1965,” said Petersen, “and until 1985 we were able to add a painting every year. We got the Claesz in 1970. Then prices started rising fast in the ’80s and everything got expensive. We have acquisition funds that keep growing, but even so we can only buy about once every decade. We’re hoping to make another purchase around the year 2000.”

I asked him what he would like.

“Every time you add a painting, you drastically change the nature of the collection. Possibly something wouldn’t fit. Our rule is that an American artist must be dead for 50 years and Europeans for 100 years. We don’t have a great High Renaissance painting, and we don’t have anything from the school of Caravaggio. Those would be extremely expensive and hard to find. On the other hand, a John Singer Sargent or Thomas Eakins for the American collection is something that we would want. But our collection has many strengths. Besides the Dutch, we have a major French work for every period of French art.”

Petersen described how the role of the museum had changed from a passive one to an active one within the community. “We are now looking to interpret and teach the collection,” he said. “Part of our job is to make people feel comfortable with art, and for that reason we've come to emphasize education. We’re looking at ways that we can collaborate with schools and colleges. We ask how organizations like this one will survive 20 years down the line, and it will be through collaboration with other museums and institutions. Besides being a pleasure,.the collection becomes a tool of instruction, even a tool of life.”

But that takes money.

“We are in a unique situation,” said Petersen, “of having a nice-sized endowment that meets 80 percent of our expenses. So our admission is free, which is our gift to the city of San Diego. The money we raise is solely used for new programs, education, conservation, and the new catalog. With exhibitions we look for help from federal and private money.

But it's hard to collect money for reparation and conservation. It's not dramatic like buying a new painting.”

It s hard to get money for something that doesn’t have an emotional tug,” said Gay Nay, director of education at the museum. “But it was the Florence flood in the mid-1960s, the drama of it and people’s shock, which generated new interest in conservation. Here you had this pristine medieval city and water was up six feet in buildings way back from the river. Books were damaged, tombs were soaked, paintings and sculpture were damaged.

Appeals for money were sent out all over the world. After the reparation was completed, there was a show in an old fort designed by Michelangelo. It showed the wreckage and what had been done. The Donatello sculpture of Mary Magdalene had been horribly damaged, and restoration made it as beautiful as it had been before. Paintings had been repaired. Giotto frescoes had been removed from the walls of Santa Croce and made like new again. It made people realize how wonderful things could be done, as well as to realize how fragile these artworks were and that they only lasted if they were well taken care of. And they saw how easy it was for a disaster like this to happen.”

The Timken has over 100 works hanging on its walls, including Russian icons. As part of the museum’s emphasis on education, an elegant new catalog was released in December with about 80 color reproductions in 240 pages. Former director Nancy Petersen wrote the introduction. The catalog shows the Rembrandt, the Rubens, the Hals, the Pissarro, and the Ozanne, along with all the others. And on page 80 is the Pieter Claesz with the startled eyes of the smoked herring glistening after their recent cleaning, the half-finished glass of ale still to be drunk.

On the cover is another brief moment taken from life’s vast collection of moments: Margaret Kemble Gage in an informal salmon-colored Turkish-style gown sitting on a black leather couch. The painting, by John Singleton Copley, was painted in New York in 1771. Margaret’s husband was General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British Army in America and governor of Massachusetts. Four years later, after his troops did badly at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Gage realized that his time in the colonies was coming to an end and he sent his wife and family back to England. She was American-born and never saw her country again. She had 11 children, of whom 8 survived. Living to the age of 90, Margaret Gage died in london in 1824. In the painting, she leans her head against her hand and stares off to the left. It appears as if she has just sat down to catch her breath. What does she think about? What can she possibly know about her complicated future? (opley has perfectly caught this beautiful dark-haired woman’s moment of meditative wonder and speculation on a day just a few years before the Declaration of Independence would turn her life topsy-turvy.

“I have done some of my best portraits here,” wrote Copley to his brother from New York, “particularly Mrs. Gage’s. It is I think beyond compare the best lady’s portrait I ever drew.”

Stephen Dobyns has been a reporter for the Detroit News and is the author of 15 novels and 8 volumes of poetry, the most recent Velocities: New and Selected Poems 1966-1992 (Viking-Penguin Books).

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