A Conversation about Conservation

By Eliot, Alexander | The World and I, June 2000 | Go to article overview

A Conversation about Conservation


Eliot, Alexander, The World and I


Renoir's The Boating Party, numerous Rembrandts, Michelangelos--all have been irrevocably altered by zealous "restoration." Isn't it time to reconsider the assumptions fueling the art restoration industry?

When I was Time magazine's art editor, I once dropped into Washington's Phillips Collection to revisit an especially beloved image: Renoir's The Boating Party. I found that this sunnily celebratory masterpiece had been moved from its central position to a dark side room, as if in shame, and I could easily understand why. Its blossomy colors appeared dried out, droopy, and half-awry. The seated figure in the foreground had been reduced to corpse gray. Barging angrily into Duncan Phillips' office, I asked for an explanation.

Tears misted the sensitive old gentleman's eyes. "Well," he told me mournfully, "I sent the picture to our mutual friends--you know the restorers I mean. The best in the business, right?"

Mr. Phillips paused to wave away an imaginary fly.

"I'd asked them to iron out a small blister on the surface and then forward the canvas to Paris for a major exhibition at the Louvre. Deciding that my prize acquisition required cleaning, they went ahead with that. The people at the Louvre at first refused to accept the resultant ruin as a Renoir! Fortunately we were able to put them straight because our friends had taken the precaution of filming their work on the canvas. I have a copy of the film, which you're welcome to view. In it you'll notice actual color-stains coming off on the cotton swabs. But please, for God's sake, don't report this tragedy. It's too dreadful."

Not long afterward I spent an instructive weekend at the Worcester, Massachusetts, home of Francis Henry Taylor, who had recently retired from his flamboyant career as director of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum. My friend Willem deKooning and I happened to have noticed a number of disturbing "hot spots" (as Bill called them) in the Metropolitan's famously extensive Rembrandt holdings. He blamed the artist, but I thought the damage must have come from inept cleaning. So I asked my host to decide the debate between Bill and me. Glancing up at the ceiling in Roman profile while stroking his paunch and swallowing hard, Francis murmured: "Oh, we ruined the Rembrandts ourselves. But let's not talk about it."

I've kept these secrets faithfully for half a century, which seems quite long enough. Meanwhile, not incidentally, a committee of Rembrandt scholars has seen fit to controvert the decisions of equally distinguished but dead colleagues and summarily "de-attribute" dozens upon dozens of Rembrandts--including some at the Metropolitan. "Not genuine," they say. ("No longer recognizable as genuine" would be a more judicious description.) Ten or twenty years from now, I imagine, specialists will get around to re-examining and de-attributing a thousand and one important pictures by Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh, and so on that have been atrociously "restored" in our time.

Sistine Revelation

My first compelling intuition of the immortality of art (regardless of its physical fate) occurred thirty-some years ago when my partner Jane Winslow and I resided in Rome close by the Ponte Sisto and opposite the Church of Santa Dorotea. Thanks to sponsorship by the American Council of Catholic Bishops, we had been invited to create a fly-on-the-ceiling documentary film of Michelangelo's frescoes on the Sistine Chapel's barrel vault. At our request the maintenance crew in charge of Saint Peter's Basilica put together a slender Tinkertoy tower of narrow aluminum pipes resting on rubber-tired wheels. Looming up through the Chapel's dusty gloom, this flimsy contraption soared no less than sixty feet to within touching distance of the vault itself. Secured by four thin steel cables though it was, our tower did not inspire confidence. I was wandering around the chapel, trying to calm my nerves for the ascent ahead, when a Vatican functionary tapped my shoulder. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Conversation about Conservation
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.