Art Restoration: The Myth and the Reality

In the wake of the controversies surrounding the cleaning of the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel, there is practically no one who is interested in art, who has not joined one of the two camps that have polarized around the issue: To restore, or not to restore? That is the question! The issue is not a simple one and the debate around this question has been raging on for centuries with many respectable scholars in both camps.

Some advocates of one or the other point of view have been called criminals, others were even dragged before the British House of Commons and have been just about accused of heresy. Yet the one thing that the protagonists in both camps have in common, is their unwavering good intentions and their desire to preserve the artworks in question for the benefit of future generations.

Let’s look at the issues. Few would argue, that the primary function and duty of a museum, organization, or individual who collects artwork, is a fiduciary one. Theirs is a responsibility of trusteeship and guardianship over every single work of art that constitutes their collection. For though they may legally own the work at present, in reality, the work belongs to the cultural heritage of all mankind. Someone else has owned it before and likely, sometime in the future, it will grace yet another collection. So it is paramount, that the physical survival of the work is assured.

When a collector acquires a work of art, through purchase or by way of donation, with it, he inherits the responsibility of caring for its well being. If he or she is unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to preserve and conserve the artwork, he would do better to forego the acquisition in favor of someone else who will. That way at least, the work will survive rather than deteriorate through someone’s misplaced priorities.

There are certain indisputable facts relating to works of art. The canvas support of a painting will deteriorate and turn into dust in about 150 years, give or take 50 years. This means that all the masterpieces that were painted prior to about 1850 would no longer exist were it not for the efforts of curators and “restorers”, long since dead, who had the inventiveness and good sense to “reline” these old paintings with a new canvas backing. Can you imagine a world without Botticelli, Rembrandt, Rubens, or any one of a thousand others? How many more of these masterpieces would have survived if they had also had the benefit of treatment?

Through the centuries, works on paper, watercolors, drawings, etchings, maps, documents, and more recently, photographs, have suffered from water, insects, rodents, mildew, and sunlight. They have become brittle and crumbled, and the devastation continues unabated even today! Well meaning, but incompetent picture framers also help along the process of ruin by using unsuitable materials and procedures, all the while anaesthetizing their unsuspecting clients with meaningless buzz words.

There can be little doubt that devoted, properly trained practitioners of art conservation, intimately familiar with the physical and chemical properties of the materials that artworks are made of and who possess a healthy appreciation and respect for the works assigned to their care, can make a difference. The World would be a barren place without our literary and artistic heritage.

About the cleaning of paintings

Yes, we have grown accustomed to the “golden patina” on the Old Masters. That is how we first saw them in our text books, in the museum, and that is how we were taught to appreciate them and love them. Yet was the grass any less green, the sky any less blue, and did the flowers grow all amber yellow instead of white in the olden days? Of course not! No, artists did know how to make bright colored paints and knew how to use them. Their perception of color was no different from ours today. When they painted their paintings, they fully intended to reflect the elements of their surroundings. So if we wish to respect the intent of the old masters, we must show their works the way they painted them– without yellowed varnish, without soot and smoke and dirt, and often wholesale over painting that these masterpieces collected over the Centuries. Judging by the freshly cleaned Sistine Chapel ceilings, we’ll learn to love these works even more, now that we can see them in intimate detail the way the Artist meant them to be seen.

In addition to encouraging artistic expression, today’s artists must be taught principles relating to the permanence of their creations, so that we may take the “temporary” out of contemporary art. Collectors, framers, gallery personnel and all who handle artworks need to have at least a basic knowledge and understanding of conservation. So if there is a benefactor out there who loves art and truly wishes to make a difference, there is no better way to make a mark than through awareness and education.

For most of us, the issue is a lot more immediate. We all know of an old family heirloom, a portrait of a long since deceased ancestor, or a painting from the old country, pictures that were present at many family events, hanging on the wall in the place of honor, for many decades. They are still around, but time has taken its toll and they fall somewhat short of how we remember them. Colors are faded, a few cracks have developed in the paint surface and there is even a small hole in the canvas.

So now that you have repainted your walls, you have a hard decision to make. Do you hang that painting, shabby as it is, back on the freshly decorated walls, or do you finally relegate it to the storage room? There is another option.

Competent framing, thoughtful placement, and tender loving care of cherished artworks will help slow their deterioration. Regular, periodic examination should also be part of a preventive care program, in order to diagnose any potential problem at an early stage, when it is still relatively minor. But even dirty, torn, fire or water damaged artworks can be enjoyed again for many generations, their beauty and value preserved by expert conservation and restoration.

Some of the many preservation-conservation- restoration services available from ConservArt include the periodic routine examination and maintenance of collections, cleaning, stabilization, consolidation, lining of paintings; stain reduction, alkaline wash, stain reduction, mending of works on paper, documents and vintage photographs; consolidation, repair, and/or gilding of period frames, objects d’art, sculptures, etc.

Conservation and restoration are an important part of the life of any artwork of merit. Through professional care, we protect the aesthetic, historic, sentimental and monetary value of collections large or small.

Comments (2)

  1. sonja toth -
    January 8, 2012

    No where do I see a reference to Brown tone restoration, do you or do you know of anybody who is able to restore fading Browntone art work?

    • george -
      April 15, 2012

      Dear Sonja,

      Sorry for the delay in answering your note. What is the medium of the artwork, what do you think caused the fading? I work on many different kind of artwork and if you can send me a digital photo and more details, I would be able to assess the problem better. Please sent these to


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April 16th, 2008

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