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Conservation of paintings

Artists, like composers, assemble various materials to create their masterpieces. Restorers help preserve these works, often revealing hidden layers with tools like infrared reflectography. Paintings carry histories, from their creation to their restoration. Artists' genius lies in their ability to express complex emotions and ideas through the unruly medium of paint. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

In many ways, the artist's materials are what musical notes are for a composer. The artist brings together a disparate group of materials, assembles them into a composition, and what we see of that composition is on the canvas. In just the same way that a conductor's job is to take this set of notes and make some sense of the unruly orchestra, a restorer's job is to take this set of materials which has gone through a lot of transformations since it was applied by the artist and make some sense of it. As consumers, we have a variety of tools that have been adapted to give us clues about what the artist may have had in mind when he was creating a particular image. This is "The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis," which was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1818 when he was working in exile in Brussels. We're looking at a detail of the painting with a technique called infrared reflectography, which involves taking a camera that has been equipped with an infrared-sensitive tube and seeing the reflective abilities of different materials, different pigments in the infrared light range. If we take a close look at this area of the painting, when we look at it with infrared, what we see is that David went to the trouble to block in the figure in the nude underneath the drapery and then to literally clothe him. David was trained as an academic painter. Academic painters in France were trained from a very young age to draw and study the nude. And one of the reasons you do that is so that you can get a real sense of form, not just the surface of the skin, but the bone and the muscle that's underneath. When you walk through the galleries, there are a couple of things that you're not aware of. One is the fact that the picture has a history. It has a history from the time that it left the easel, when all sorts of things began to happen to it. This is a painting by an early 19th century German painter named Caspar David Friedrich, who is an extremely rare artist in this country. When I first saw the painting at the auction house, it was in a somewhat disheveled state. It had a fairly discolored varnish on the surface, and more importantly, it had a large hole in this part of the painting. What I did do was to repair the hole from the back, glue some new pieces of fabric just to the edges of the painting, which allowed me to re-stretch it onto the stretcher. And then I had prepared the stretcher with yet another piece of fabric. And then the whole package was put back together so that from the front you really can't tell that anything has happened. So, the challenge in the restoration was to take care of the structural anomalies, this hole in the sky, but to do the work in such a way that my presence would be as invisible as possible so that all that was left in the end was the artist's voice speaking to you directly. We have been able to look at this painting with infrared reflectography, and underneath the surface there's an extraordinarily elaborate plan. These trees in the distance, which have a kind of misty quality, were laid in in very elaborate, precise detail. And then the paint actually played the role of the mist. Imagine a late afternoon or early evening when the mist begins to rise from the fields. Friedrich literally laid in the mist, laid in the paint the same way that the mist would have traveled into the field. And that's one of the reasons that this illusion of a tree in the mist in the distance compared to the clarity of the tree in the foreground is so successful because he's used the paint almost to imitate the natural progression of the atmosphere. What appears to be the essence of simplicity and purity is often the result of a tremendous wrestle and struggle with materials. Paint is a very unruly and difficult substance to handle, and it's very hard to make it do what you want it to do. And one of the reasons that artists are such geniuses is because they're able to take a virtually unmanageable material and make sense of it, make it speak, make it say something and reflect some inner beliefs and feelings that they have. And that's a tremendous skill and talent and gift, which is why we appreciate these things today.