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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Peeking Behind the Canvas

For those of you who remember reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and wishing you could run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this post will be a little taste of that fantasy.

Today, I got to go on a field trip of sorts (courtesy of The Boy), visiting a friend of ours at work, after hours.

Our friend is an art conservator for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He very kindly took us on a tour of his atelier, where he conserves paintings for the deYoung Museum and the Legion of Honor.

Our friend regularly works with centuries-old paintings, gently removing layers of yellowed lacquer, repairing torn canvases, and "in painting" areas where the paint has been completely removed.

These paintings, worth many millions, are restored to glory under the expert and gentle hands of our talented, patient friend.

His atelier is part artist retreat, part laboratory.


As much as I loved hearing the description of the restoration work before me, I couldn't help being fascinated by all of the materials and supplies.



Chemicals, pigments, palettes, all sorts of linens and mylars and solvents and tools, a Leica microscope, a heated vacuum table, an X-ray machine...all fascinating artifacts of this secret world that exists behind the museum's galleries.

I love getting glimpses of these hidden alternate worlds, learning about the different and fascinating things that people do all day.

More photos here.

11 comments:

upfromthedeep May 8, 2008 at 7:41 AM  

My god, you have lived out an old, old dream of mine. You are so amazingly fortunate. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Relyn May 8, 2008 at 7:49 AM  

You know I love that book. Lucky you! Up from the deep and I have similar dreams. You got to do another thing that I have always wanted to do. I tell you, The Boy ought to start a new business called Making Dreams Come True. He sure seems to be good at it. I think I'm a little jealous. Thanks for the insider's peek. It was amazing.

Johanna May 8, 2008 at 9:40 AM  

I just LOVE field trips!!!! But pray tell, what are the glass beads for?

Elizabeth May 8, 2008 at 10:05 AM  

TB, It boggles my mind how many things you are interested in that line up with passions of mine! Nice pictures and what a great treat to get behind the scenes at the Museum. XO
E

studio wellspring May 8, 2008 at 10:19 AM  

fascinating and wonderful ~ i can't wait to meet this talented man and hear more about his little-known world. and your photos are so, so good. another perfect entry for your up-coming book. ;o)

tangobaby May 9, 2008 at 10:37 AM  

Hello upfromthedeep,

It was really exciting, especially to be able to stand so close to a beautiful painting and not get in trouble with security.

The little chemist in me loved all of the bottles of stuff.

Hi Relyn,

I wrote that part for you, with a big smile. But that's exactly what it felt like. We walked through a maze of hallways behind the galleries, and walked in the museum with all the lights turned off, too.

Hey, if you come out here someday, I'll try to make some of your dreams come true.

Hi Johanna,

That vial was full of a white powder that looked like baking soda. But apparently it was very very finely milled glass, perfectly ground into tiny balls. They add these things to paint to give it a certain lustre.

Hi Elizabeth,

Part of my brain was going, "OMG, Elizabeth would flip out if she was here!" I totally wished you were with me. Ah, someday. Tell Alan it's time for a trip to SF!

Hi Ms. Wellspring,

I'm looking forward to the day when you get to meet our friend. You will love him.

xoxo to all of you little art conservation appreciators.

Annie May 11, 2008 at 9:30 AM  

I first saw your photos over on Flickr. So glad I dropped in and found the story behind the pictures. What a fascinating tour you received.

tangobaby May 12, 2008 at 4:17 PM  

Hi Annie,

I'm glad you read the post too. I still have to get around to writing descriptions of the photos, so just seeing them out of context might not be as fun.

It was really a wonderful experience to be there. I hope I can go again someday.

paris parfait May 13, 2008 at 4:40 AM  

What a special treat! An amazing day. Thanks for the peek into this fascinating process. xoxox

P May 13, 2008 at 5:05 PM  

I've always thought that art restoration would be a fascinating job. Too bad it involves organic chemistry...

tangobaby May 13, 2008 at 5:15 PM  

Dear P,

I think art conservation is one of those fascinating, very low paying but extremely competitive jobs that you have to be somewhat brilliant and single-minded to have. But being in the lab was a super cool experience.

I'm with you about the chemistry...I like organic chemistry a lot more now that I don't have to take classes in it. When I did, I was contemplating killing myself and/or dropping out of school.

I still don't know what the difference between an alkene and an alkyne is, but I can spell them. Go figure.