JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 131 to 140)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 5 (pp. 131 to 140)




In the early 19th century, Sir Humphry Davy studied the pigments of antiquity. His protégé, Michael Faraday, noted the need for employing a chemist in museums and carried out tests in the 1850s on the protective value of varnishes to prevent lead white from turning black after exposure to sulfur compounds released by trains and gas lamps. In 1870, Professor Max von Pettenkoffer published results of his experiments with the use of alcohol vapors to regenerate clouded varnish films. In 1920, Edward Waldo Forbes, director of the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, wrote about the need in the United States for the scientific study of the chemistry of paintings. In 1930, at the International Conference in Rome, “the scientific methods employed for the examination and conservation of paintings” were discussed (International Museums Office 1940). George Stout, head of the Department of Conservation at the Fogg from 1933 to 1947, noted that the Rome conference of 1930 “seems to have occurred at or near the end of an indefinitely long period of complacency with respect to the conservation of works of art,” during which the field had been merely a trade with tricks and secrets (Stout 1964, 126). Under the leadership of Forbes, Stout, and Rutherford John Gettens, then chemist at the Fogg Art Museum, the first technical journal in conservation, Technical Studies in the Fields of Fine Arts, was published from 1932 to 1942 by the Fogg Art Museum, with an international board of editors. Stout credits the “movement of large collections into emergency repositories” during World War II with drawing additional scientific, museum-based focus on problems of environment and transport (Stout 1964, 126).

Until at least this point, the history of paintings conservation and the history of conservation were essentially the same. The first use of the term “conservation” has been traced back to at least 1870, to Manfred Holyoake's book The Conservation of Pictures. Sheldon Keck noted in his presentation on the history of conservation at the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1976, that the restoration treatment of paintings dates back to Greek and Roman times, when it was in the hands of the artist-craftsperson. This tradition continued through Peter Paul Rubens, who treated a collection of paintings damaged by moisture in the 17th century (Keck 1976). Treatment by artists was fairly acceptable, as artists had generally had extensive apprenticeships and were required to understand their materials and the detailed construction of works of art.

Copyright © 1994 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works