Findings, fun facts, and fly specks: Results from the paintings survey!

Guest Blogger: Stephanie Hufford

Hey everyone! I’m back one last time to talk about the final results of our survey of the UMFA’s European paintings collection. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me, so I’ll catch you up a little first.

The UMFA received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to perform a comprehensive survey of the European painting collection. We (Robyn, the UMFA conservator, Leslie Anderson-Perkins, UMFA’s curator of European, American and Regional art, and I) brought in two paintings conservators from the Western Center for Conservation of Fine Arts (WCCFA). The two conservators, Carmen Bria and Yasuko Ogino, were here for a week in July, assessing the collection and performing minor on-the-spot treatments.

Conservation Grant_03

As the intern assisting with the survey, I was tasked with entering results into the Museum’s database and putting together a treatment priority list for future reference. I also gave a short presentation to Museum staff on September 1, where I updated everyone on the project and our findings.

Grant Presentation 4

And now that you’re up to speed… Back to the interesting stuff.

Overall, we surveyed 195 paintings. (Not all European paintings in the UMFA collection were included in the survey; works that were recently treated as well as paintings on paper were excluded. The survey strictly covered only paintings on canvas and panel.)

When conducting condition reports on each work, we examined:

  • the frame
  • the ground layer (usually gesso)
  • the oil paint
  • the support (panel)
  • the varnish

Taking these components into account, we were tasked with creating treatment proposals for each work, as well as cost estimates based on the number of hours needed to treat the paintings.

Conservation Grant_02

Of the nearly 200 paintings surveyed:

  • About 40% were found to be in excellent condition; they need no treatment and are ready to be exhibited at any time.
  • Approximately 25% of the paintings are in need of aesthetic treatments, including yellowing varnish, fly specks (the bodily waste discharged when flies land on a painting), and other visual imperfections.
  • Another 25% of the works in the survey are in need of structural treatments before being displayed, meaning either the panel is cracked or the canvas is slacked and no longer stretching tightly across the panel.
  • The final 10% are categorized as poor condition/”urgent” and in need of serious/immediate treatment. The works in the “urgent” category generally exhibit a combination of aesthetic and structural damage. While Carmen and Yasuko were on site, they helped treat some of the paintings in need of urgent attention, as it was dangerous to leave them stored as they were.

Some treatments that were performed included:

  • paint consolidation: re-adhering flaking paint back onto the support of the painting
  • spot cleaning: either with solvents or some sharp instrument, such as a scalpel
  • inpainting: filling in losses in the paint with watercolors or other reversible materials (all treatments must be reversible so they can be altered in the future if needed and to preserve the original condition of the work)

Conservation Grant_24

One example of a work that required immediate treatment was Holy Family with the Infant St. John (1540-1586) by Francesco Brina due to a large vertical crack in the work surrounded by flaking paint. The work was being stored vertically, so this had to be addressed in order for it to continue hanging safely. Carmen performed on-the-spot treatment on the crack flakes, so the work is stable, but it will still need further treatment on the yellowing varnish. (And if you’re wondering why Carmen is touching this work with his bare hands… Some treatments require such a delicate touch that gloves would make the conservator too clumsy and imprecise.)

saint john

Another work that received attention was Saint John the Baptist (1496-1520) by Master of Santa Maria de la Hoz. This piece, which is currently on view in our European gallery, exhibited tenting paint on the subject’s left leg. Tenting paint occurs when the artwork’s support is exposed to humidity and moves, but the paint does not move along with it, so a bubble forms between the two. Along with the tenting, the wood of the support had shrunk, so the work itself would not lay flat. Adhesive had to be applied between the layers to make the work stable. (This was actually the second time Carmen looked at this particular piece—the first time was during a previous visit in 2010.)

brittany seaport

During the installation of the UMFA’s newest exhibition, Brian Bress: Make Your Own Friends, several works from the permanent galleries were taken down and replaced with Bress’ video portraits. One such work was Brittany Seaport (1876-1924) by Fernand-Marie-Eugene Legout-Gerard. Remember the fly specks I mentioned earlier? (Gross, I know.) Well this work had plenty, and we had to delicately scrape them off with a scalpel.

Larger or more invasive procedures, like full varnish removal, relining of a canvas, or re-framing will require paintings to be sent away to the WCCFA for treatment. While the Museum is temporarily closed in 2016, many of the more urgent cases will most likely be sent there to be treated.

All in all, I had a great experience at the UMFA. I’d like to thank everyone for following along with the progress of the survey and my internship, and also everyone at the UMFA for making my time in Salt Lake so rewarding!

(And if any of the terms I’ve used sound like crazy museum jargon, this glossary of painting conservation terms should clear some things up.)



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