Every painting in the Blanton’s collection has a history. Before it found its way to Austin, it might have made a centuries-long trek across the globe, through various owners and situations. Today, it has a good home in a clean, well-lit place where admirers can visit it. But what has this painting been through? And does it need help?
The stewards of the Blanton’s collection, its curators, have undertaken a project to give one group of these works — the European Paintings collection — a check-up. They want to diagnose any problems the works have today and learn as much about their past as possible.
The Blanton holds over 300 European paintings, mainly from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras. Most are from the Suida-Manning Collection. It includes, amongst others, masterworks by Parmigianino, Veronese, and Rubens.
I chatted with one of the Blanton’s curatorial staff about what prompted this check-up of the European paintings, Kristin Holder. Holder not only runs the study room and storage areas for the print and drawing department but she also worked as a paintings’ technician at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“Most of the collection had been in private hands before coming to the Blanton,” said Holder says. “The more that we know about the objects, the more that we can explain them to our audience.”
In addition, the more that’s known about the works’ physical conditions, the better the museum can interpret them, care for them, and preserve them for future generations.
In June, a curatorial team of Senior Curator Francesca Consagra, Research Associate Jeongho Park along with Holder and preparator Jennifer Paulson, began their project to study about 130 works from the European collection. This group of paintings includes works currently on view, as well as some in storage. The team is surveying about four paintings per week, Holder says, and the project will continue through next December.
The team works through a multi-step process with each painting.
First, they lay the painting flat on a table. Holder examines the front of the canvas, looking for cracking, paint loss, scraping, or other types of damage, including any problems caused by the frame. She also looks for evidence that the painting may have been cut down and re-stretched from its original configuration.
Looking at the work under ultraviolet light, Holder can detect old restorations like fixed cracks or filled-in areas of paint loss. UV light also reveals how thick the varnish is atop the painting.
Throughout their investigation, Paulson makes notes and Holder takes photos to document any areas of the painting that are in need of attention.
Once this initial exam is complete, they remove the painting from its frame and examine the back.
The back of a painting often holds a bonanza of information about its history. Holder and Park look for things like collector’s marks, inventory marks, auction stickers, exhibition stickers, and panel-maker stamps (for works painted on wood panels). Paintings can also have customs stamps on the back, showing when they left specific countries. Sometimes framers also tag pictures, giving a clue to when and where it was framed. What’s more, the back of a painting can reveal whether someone has relined the picture using new canvas.
As Holder examines the back of the picture, Paulson takes a careful look at the empty frame.
“In a sense, the frame is its own object, independent of the painting,” she says. “The frame is often made at a later date than the painting or originally made for another work and reused.”
Paulson notes the frame’s physical condition. Has it been cut down from a larger size to fit its current painting? She also checks its structural integrity. Is it doing its job and supporting the work well?
Park meanwhile looks carefully at the paintings for the artists’ characteristic styles and iconography. He also studies the painted additions and restorations so that he can better understand what the original painting might have looked like.
Senior Curator Francesca Consagra is called in when something of interest turns up. She says. “I get very excited about new discoveries.”
Holder agrees. “Francesca — she’s all about the story” behind the works of art, and how they make a narrative. And learning more about the stories behind all of their paintings will help the Blanton share them better with audiences.
“The more information that we have, the more the collection is more accessible to the public,” Holder says. “A small change … can bring a work to life.”
Rebecca Johnson is the editor of the University’s StarDate magazine, and a volunteer blogger for the Blanton.