Theresa Carmichael’s interest in conservation began in her teens with a $6 million art theft from her employer’s home and her introduction to a conservator of gilded French icons. Since then, she has worked on a 14th-century altarpiece, Salvador Dali’s The Last Supper and several paintings by John Singer Sargent, Fitz Henry Lane and John Singleton Copley. At PEM, Carmichael will restore an 18th-century Dutch painting in the Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes Galleries twice a week for the run of the exhibition.

What made you want to become a conservator?
You don’t hear a lot about conservation growing up in this country, as you do in Europe, where you hear about it on every corner. When I did hear about it, it seemed to combine my love for the arts with what I felt I was good at — the sciences. Conservation provides a nice balance for me.

What training did you receive?

I went to undergraduate school and studied fine art, and had some art history. I got a secondary education degree as well. After that I went to Europe to study the Conservation of Fine Art for a year at the Università Internazionale dell’Arte in Florence, Italy. I spent the summer before studying chemistry. I then had a six-week crash course in Italian so I could understand my lectures. After that I spent three years in London at the Courtauld Institute of Art and specialized in the Conservation of Easel Paintings. They accept one foreigner per year, so I had to go! It was wonderful. Europe is a great place to study conservation because there’s so much art everywhere. We worked on paintings from the get-go, as well as learning the materials and techniques of the old masters and the science background to go with it.

Do you have to know how to paint to conserve paintings?

Conservation is more of a technical skill than it is creative and artistic. You have to be able to put back whatever paint might be missing, which is called in-painting, but you don’t want to take any artistic license when re-creating the original.

Are there overriding tenets of conservation?

The primary philosophy of conservation today is that everything you do must be reversible without harming the original. Also, you want to leave something as close as possible to the original intent of the artist. On a lot of occasions, less is more.

As a student, what painting made an impression on you?
I worked on a small Dutch marine panel painting by David Teniers the Younger during my second year at the Courtauld. I knew it was the original artist because many areas had “pentimenti,” indicating areas that been changed. If you’re going to forge something, you’re not going to change elements of the composition. As paint layers age, they become more transparent, and if there is any underdrawing, it is more easily seen through upper layers. To be able to work on something like that as a student is wonderful.

Have you ever uncovered a fake?
At least one. It was supposed to be by an 18th-century artist, but it was made with acrylic paint so it couldn’t possibly be.

What is it like to conserve a significant work of art?

There is a feeling of awe when you’re working on something important, but we try to treat all paintings as if they’re worth a lot. I don’t think we’d cut any corners if Grandma painted it.

How does contemporary artwork change the rules of conservation?

The biggest problem is that artists don’t always take into consideration the materials they use. They’ll stick on a feather in a collage or use newspaper, which is not acid free, so it disintegrates upon touching it shortly after it’s been completed. Many artists want to come up with something new and inventive, which goes back to the Pre-Raphaelites experimenting and using things like mayonnaise in their medium. These things aren’t always stable and don’t tend to last. You need to be practical in figuring out the best way to do the work in the most responsible manner.

What role do you have before a large painting exhibition like [Dutch Seascapes]?
Curators decide what they want in the show. We get called in if a painting needs work. Rarely, but sometimes a work that comes in on loan requires work on an emergency basis and we take care of that. We document everything we do, with photographic and written records.

What’s the first step in the process?

You start with an overall look at what needs to be done. You assess the condition of the support, the canvas layer or panel, then the secondary support if there is one. You move on to the paint and grounds, determining what they are and whether the painting has been restored before and what might be overpaint. You then determine the structure and solubility of the surface coating and then the surface dirt. Finally you determine the structural integrity of the frame. You learn to go backwards, to see how the painting is built up.

Where do you start?
We always do a cleaning test in an unobtrusive place, usually a light area, to remove surface dirt, then the varnish layer if there is one. That would then be the side we start with. We usually clean one half and then the other, and it looks like a line running down the center. People like to see the contrast and know what we’re doing.

What part of the process do you prefer?

In-painting. I guess it goes back to doing paint by numbers as a child. You can sit in the studio and put paint on canvas. It’s so rewarding to see an image come back together that’s been all broken up from paint loss.

How long is the process?
That depends on size, what it’s made of, whether it’s cracked, torn, moldy, etc. I have people calling all the time asking how much for a 10-inch by 14-inch picture. I need to know more than that. We worked for most of last summer on the oldest stage curtain in the country. There wasn’t a lot of paint left on it. It took months. An easel painting that needs a great deal of work might take 100 hours or more. On the other hand, it might take an hour to stabilize a crack and make sure the paint won’t fall off or develop a buckle down the road.

What are the tools of the trade?

We make our own swabs, use heated spatulas, a vacuum hot table, microscopes to examine paint structure and UV light to determine the nature of a varnish layer and areas of in-painting. We use chemicals with as few additives as possible. We use petroleum distillates, alcohols, acetone and xylene, and a full range of solvents with a varying range of polarity. Varnishes will be reactive to solvents of different polarities and strengths.

Have you ever uncovered anything unusual?
Someone once brought us a picture found in a trash bin. It was a primitive painting of a man with a champagne glass, painted sideways over a New Hampshire landscape by a fairly well-known New England artist. We knew it was worth looking at because the inscription on the back said where it was painted and had the artist’s signature. It’s not uncommon to paint over a painting. Sometimes the artist needs another canvas. This was probably a birthday present to the man holding the champagne glass.

Do all paints react similarly to the conservation process?
Solubility varies across a single canvas. Oftentimes, dark colors in a landscape may be very soluble, as opposed to something in the sky made with a lead white or titanium white base. Blues are very metameric, which means they look one way in one type of light and completely different in another. So if I’m in-painting with blues, I need to know what kind of light the painting will be seen in. If something’s going into a gallery with artificial light, I can’t in-paint in daylight or the color may not match.

Can you make anything better?

A lot of people bring me things they thought were hopeless. But 99.9 percent of the time, it’s not a problem. Sometimes they take longer or are out of the ordinary. For example, a courthouse in town had a color photograph painted in oil, and mounted on canvas. It came to us with blisters between the paper layer and the canvas. We contacted photographic conservators, but they didn’t want it because it was painted and on canvas. A paper conservator didn’t want it for the same reasons. We ended up treating it even though it wasn’t something we had been trained for. Not everything falls into a neat box. You need to use ingenuity and your knowledge of materials.

Are you compelled to conserve every painting you see?

Yes! I’ve always had the desire and passion to conserve dying paintings. If I had the time and means I’d help all the disintegrating paintings of the world and not charge anybody. Unfortunately, it’s not always about having the willingness and ability, but knowing the right people and finding the funding to do so. As a student, I’d walk through churches in Italy and see paintings with tissue paper stuck to the front. It’s heart wrenching to see so much magnificent art fall to ruin and not be able to do something about it.

What’s the oldest piece you’ve worked on?
At the Courtauld there was a 1350 altarpiece in tempera, which was used before oil paint came into existence. Tempera requires a different technique because it looks like tiny little isles of paint sitting on a substrate of a different color. I also had to work on the gilding. (I did my thesis on the restoration of gilded panel painting.) Traditionally, gilded patch repairs would stand out on the gilded surfaces and could not be removed. I devised a way to attach the gilding in a way that it could be removed. I used a synthetic adhesive to attach gold in a way that it could be punched and burnished to get the effect of the surrounding gold.

You’ll be working on a painting at PEM in the [Dutch Seascapes] Gallery. Do you enjoy the public experience?
It was interesting for me when I did it at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass., because people found the work fascinating. The questions, even from little children, were remarkable. They wanted to know everything: Who is the portrait of? What happened to it? What are you going to do next? Are you going to fix the hole? The same people watched for a long time. They wouldn’t move on.

What role does conservation play in the world of art?
It’s essential to preserve or conserve works of art so they don’t deteriorate. To some extent a lack of funding over the years means that there’s a lot of work that’s sitting in storage and can’t be treated. It’s sad. I want to get these things out and on view for the public. That’s what they were made for.

Interview conducted by Connections Editor Lisa Kosan.

The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes
June 13–September 7, 2009

About the Peabody Essex Museum

The Peabody Essex Museum presents art and culture from New England and around the world. The museum's collections are among the finest of their kind, showcasing an unrivaled spectrum of American art and architecture (including four National Historic Landmark buildings) and outstanding Asian, Asian Export, Native American, African, Oceanic, Maritime and Photography collections. In addition to its vast collections, the museum offers a vibrant schedule of changing exhibitions and a hands-on education center. The museum campus features numerous parks, period gardens and 24 historic properties, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States.

Open Tuesday-Sunday and holiday Mondays, 10 am-5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

ADMISSION: Adults $15; seniors $13; students $11.* Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $5. Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.
*Does not apply to children in school/tour groups

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