JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1996, Volume 35, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 197 to 218)




Beginning in the later 19th century, science and the scientific method were introduced into the mix of crafts and techniques used by serious art restorers. Scientific advances and refinements in scientific method opened the possibility of uniform and analytic approaches to restoration problems and processes. The use of scientific procedures promised relief from confusion and criticism caused by idiosyncratic or arbitrary restoration practices in the past. An emphasis on preservation and the use of knowledge in the physical and chemical sciences eventually came to distinguish the new discipline of art conservation from the older trade of restoration. Applied to art and art conservation, positivism implied that aesthetic and art historical apprehension had to be acquired candidly through the senses and be based on frank observation and experiment. In the positivist's view, intuitions, impressions, insights, suppositions, feelings, and the like are questionable and uncertain ways of understanding. “Positive” knowledge depends on empirical science (Broude 1991, 114).

By the time the first American conservation laboratory was established at the Fogg Art Museum in 1928, it was simply accepted that the natural sciences were the model and method for describing the standards by which artworks would be restored and maintained. Art conservation was understood to be a matter of chemistry, physics, and mechanics, and it was the responsibility of professional practitioners, working under strict guidelines based on a solid scientific foundation (Stout 1948, vi–vii).

Although science became an indispensable part of the conservator's training and perspective, it could not become an exclusive approach. Science provided the means for developing technologies, detecting significant facts, and matching them to theory. In practice, it could describe reliable means for achieving certain ends, but it could not decide the suitability of those ends or justify them by scientific virtue alone. Instead there was a belief that the authority of science and scientific technologies would complement the art of restoration and lend it the type of credibility that was carved out in the natural sciences. There was confidence that a measure of scientific objectivity would dispel any perceptions of art restoration as an entirely interpretive and unrestrained process.

Scientific foundations notwithstanding, controversy embroiled the young discipline of art conservation just as it had plagued earlier means and manners of restoration. In 1947, the National Gallery, London, held a special exhibition of newly cleaned paintings, partly to demonstrate the results of serious scientific conservation. Reactions to this exhibition were not universally favorable. Contrary and inflamed opinions were expressed by the general public in letters to the Times and the Sunday Telegraph. In addition to the public tumult, some distinguished art historians and respected critics also disputed the cleaning results. Many of the most rational and scholarly arguments were eventually presented in the pages of Burlington Magazine. Three months after the exhibition's opening, Burlington editors commented:

Though our most serious quarrel is with those who maintain that the national pictures have been damaged, we still cling to the suspicion, which even this most reassuring Exhibition cannot entirely dispel, that the responsible authorities set too much store by science, and too little by that capricious barometer registering sensibility (Burlington Magazine 1947).

Helmut Ruhemann, the gallery's director of conservation, was a strong supporter of a positivist approach. In response to demands and questions from an independent board of inquiry, conservators at the National Gallery referred to technical evidence and scientific analysis done during the treatments to argue that historical speculation and metaphysical clutter had created misconceptions about the true appearance of old paintings. Ruhemann and the positivist conservators firmly believed that scientific observation, study, and experimentation validated systematic art conservation technologies and that consistent application of these technologies accurately exposed, preserved, and truthfully presented the materials originally laid down by the artist. In this way, the intentions of the artist were served equitably, without interpretive distortion. Ruhemann and his supporters defined and defended their position by appealing to the artist's intentions as an authoritative principle. Conservators from the National Gallery claimed: “It is presumed to be beyond dispute that the aim of those entrusted with the care of paintings is to present them as nearly as possible in the state in which the artist intended them to be seen” (MacLaren and Werner 1950, 189).

In its most dogmatic form, this claim implied that all artifacts of aging and all previous retouching should be removed or remedied to the extent technologically possible without harming or obscuring the remaining original paint. The conservator's job was “to preserve and show to its best advantage every original particle remaining of a painting,” and in so doing he or she should be “guided by the master's intention” (Ruhemann 1963, 202).

This technologically driven program for following the artist's intentions was supposed to represent an objective, noninterpretive approach to restoration. It was questioned by conservators and art historians with antipositivist leanings who insisted that artistic, aesthetic, and historical considerations were not receiving enough attention in a narrow and insensitive conception of conservation goals. Cesare Brandi, head of the Instituto del Restauro in Rome, told attendees at the 1948 International Council of Museums meeting in Paris, “We may often find ourselves in closer touch with the mind of the artist by leaving the picture with its patina than by removing it” (1949, 188). Paul Coremans of the Courtauld Institute defended the cleaning of a Rubens in the 1947 exhibition but admitted, “I do not claim to have exhausted the subject, especially since my argument is confined to chemical, physical, and technical considerations, and since the cleaning of old pictures should at the same time be judged in the light of aesthetic criteria” (1948, 261).

In reaction to Ruhemann's 1961 publication of a positivist approach to Leonardo DaVinci's use of sfumato, art historian Ernst Gombrich revisited the issues raised by the 1947 exhibition and became leader of the antipositivist opposition with a claim that strictly technical approaches to conservation treatment yielded paintings whose condition and appearance were newly artificial and alien to any human memory or recollection (Gombrich 1962). Art historical understanding and connoisseurship should control the course of conservation treatment, he argued. New appearances should not be discovered or determined by technical methods alone. Gombrich and his supporters insisted that paintings should be restored with a comparative and discerning eye toward their faded colors, their characteristic patina, and inevitable decay. They claimed that prudent aesthetic and historical interpretations should have precedence over technologically determined expositions.

The National Gallery cleaning controversy, which also became known as the Ruhemann-Gombrich debate, revolved around issues of artist's intentions. Both camps invoked these issues in their arguments (Carrier 1985, 291–92). On Gombrich's side, the general claim was that a technologically driven approach does not necessarily respect artistic or historical consideration of an artist's work (Gombrich 1963). Argument from historical research asserted that certain Old Masters anticipated the aging of their work, intending them to darken and fade (Kurz 1962, 1963). Connoisseurship and aesthetic observation suggested that purposeful artistic effects, perhaps the use of tinted varnishes and glazes, were not recognized by positivist methods and techniques (Rees-Jones 1962). Additionally, paintings change in time, Gombrich and his supporters argued, and in a way that is not retractable; they cannot be returned to their original order and state as they appeared in the hands of their makers. Referring indirectly to the cleaning of Titian's Virgin and Child with Saints John & Catherine, Gombrich remarked, “One should have thought it is common ground that Titian is dead and that we cannot ask him what his intention was” (Gombrich 1962, 54). The National Gallery cleaning controversy deflated somewhat after Ruhemann's camp contrived a mocking pun accusing Gombrich and followers of fascination with “dirty” pictures (Walden 1985, 118).

In 1977, a similar controversy erupted at the National Gallery of Art in Washington over the cleaning of paintings, especially one attributed to Rembrandt. By this time, the differences between positivist and antipositivist approaches divided the art conservation profession into scientific and aesthetic camps, at least in the perception of the communications media and its public (Hochfield 1976, 1978). John Brealey, conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was cast to represent the aesthetic antipositivist approach (Tompkins 1987): “What we don't do here is try to make believe the whole thing is scientific, wear white coats and use Formica tables and pretend we're dealing with absolutes” (quoted in Glueck 1980). Scientific or purist conservators were less willing to entertain media attention. Their research, techniques, and analyses were supported by publication in technical and professional journals, and when invited to counter their antagonists and critics, they often chose to remain nameless (McGill 1987). Although their rhetoric was adamant and their arguments were sound, aesthetic conservators could not reduce the power and status of the scientific approach. The personal authority of individual erudition was essential to the aes-thetic conservators' position. Its personal source and subjective premises did not hold against the impersonal authority of science.

The controversy and debate between conservators refocused and intensified the uncomfortable atmosphere of ad hominem argument that has surrounded restoration issues for centuries. Titian, for instance, restored several masterpieces in his day and employed a personal insult to criticize Sebastiano del Piombo's retouching of the famous rooms at the Vatican, originally painted by Raphael (Dolce [1577] 1970, 22–23). Eugène Delacroix claimed that restoration was vandalism perpetrated by miserable daubers who destroyed artworks by usurping the place of real artists, substituting new work for the originals (1948, 104). Speaking of the individual erudition necessary for the aesthetic conservator's work, one conservator remarked:

[There] is an implicit tendency for the method to create prima donna restorers, who, as they are actively changing old masters, must lay claim to great sensitivity and a highly perceptive eye. This can lead to futile discussions since, to disagree with an individual of such capacities, simply confirms your own lack of those qualities (Hedley 1985, 19).

Conservators, art historians, and critics with less polemical responses to controversy avoided the sharpened horns of this dilemma between scientific and aesthetic methods. Many believed that scientific authority and art historical weight can often be balanced in conservation work. Another conservator recalled Erwin Panofsky's tribute to Paul Coremans, who “more than anyone else encouraged the art historical lamb to dwell with the scientific wolf,” quoting Coremans's words:

We intend to grant an equal importance to the elements of appreciation in the areas historic, aesthetic, scientific and technical. We believe, in effect, that it is erroneous and baneful to raise a barrier between knowledge called scientific, the result of observation and of the interpretation of the facts, and the knowledge called intuitive, born from contemplation. We have, on the contrary, the conviction that only their association, their interpenetration, always in a more profound way, will permit us to progress towards treatments ever more effective and more respectful of the objects (quoted in Weil 1984, 91).

In the long lingering aftermath of the National Gallery cleaning controversy, it eventually became clear that the positivist postulation about serving the artist's intentions was hollow. A strict, technologically driven approach achieved only a scientifically bona fide presentation of authentic material—a presentation that did not necessarily reveal the artist's original creation, support conventions of connoisseurship, or fulfill art historical research and precedent.

Copyright © 1996 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works