The history of art conservation

The most famous art restoration was also one of the earliest in History – the restoration of the Sistine Chapel in 1565. Almost 200 years later in 1726, Michelangelo Bellotti restored the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, also another work that was more widely known. It was not until 1850, did the first and most famous Oliver Fine arts Restoration opened in New York City. It is one of the longest running art restoration company, whose clients included the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. At at point, restoring art was not yet viewed scientifically, and it was either done by artists themselves, or apprentices whom had mostly artistic backgrounds.

To begin the scientific history of art restoration, one must learn of Micheal Faraday and Louis Pasteur, who were both scientist from the 19th century.  They were famous for many scientific contributions, however, what people did not know was their research on how environment can damage an artwork and paint. It was not until 1877, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in the UK, the first constructive conservation work began around some important cultural heritage. On the same time, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a famous french architect also began the restoration of medieval buildings in France.

When art restoration began to developed as an idea in Germany, it was mostly linked to sciences instead of the arts. Most people in this field were chemists, who focused the physical elements of the art piece instead of the aesthetics. Friedrich Rathgen was one of the first and most important chemist for art restoration. Not only was he the first chemist to be hired by a museum in 1888 – Koniglichen Museen, Berlin – he also published the Handbook of Conservation, which opened the door for more chemists to enter this field of work.

It was not until 1924, was art conservation an identified profession in Europe, when Dr.Alexander Scott created the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in the British Museum. They began their work by restoring art damaged in the First World War. Harold Plenderleith, a chemist who worked in the department, then published The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art, in 1956, a significant work that established the standards of modern art conservation. Edward W. Forbes, the director of Fogg Art Museum in USA established the Technical Department in 1928, which highlighted the beginning of America’s scientific approach towards arts conservation. To many people’s surprise, the first french museum to established a relative department was the Louvre, in 1931, much later than its peers.

In April 27, 1950,  The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) was established. It was the first conservation society recognizing the the professional practice. Till this day, the institute works to promote the knowledge of art preservation around the globe. In 1972, America established its own American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) which also promotes the same values, provides research, and connect the professionals with the public. The development of art conservation has come a long way in the western culture and it till still building milestones till this very day.


Restoration artists

I was looking online for the definition of people who restore art and came across the term restoration artist. It never occured to me that restoration can also be a form of art, and it had showed me a completely new side of it. So now I have to question myself again, what is the line between technology replacing craftsmanship, and technology enchaning craftsmanship? How can one define the both, and should anyone really make a line between them? Can technology help restoring art, or does it take away the jobs of specialists who dedicated their lives to this art form? I start to wonder if I am contradicting myself, because it might mean that I need to rethink my thesis, and what it really means to use technology for restoring art.

This is the traditional restoration artist Milroy Harrison, he had dedicated his craft for decades, and by watching this I discovered the complexity of this art form. There are many terms and methods for restoring, and he has the answer to all the problems. And it made me wonder if there are certain things that technology cannot do, maybe there are some parts where only human attention can restore? In the video, him and his assitant talk about restoring art with such human emotion, it is almost like they have developed a relationship with the painting, and on the same time discovering how the original artist had painted it in the first place. This is similar to how the 3D scanners can render detailed brush strokes of each painting, like I have mentioned in a previous post. And then it clicked, aren’t they doing the same thing? Isn’t this what I have been argueing about the whole time? That art should not be replaced with technology? If they call themselves restoration artists, then they wouldn’t want their crafts to be replaced by machinery, would they?

Then I came across another interesting term art conservators. It is another term they use to describe their occupation. Take Xiangmei Gu for example, she is one of the only Chinese painting conservator in the Freer Gallery of Art. What she does is to preserve the art from in the gallery, replacing the paper underneath the paintings, restoring chipped pigments on the paintings. It is not an easy job, as Chinese paintings are much different than western paintings. The paper is thin and she had spent years to master the skill back in China. And she said they the learning is not yet over.

“until you stop working, you never stop learning.”

Here is a painting that she had restored, you can see how different the style is, and I wonder if 3D printing can do the same, and mimic the thin ink.


Here is a video that shows the process of painting a chinese Gang bi style painting.

When I see her treating art with such respect, I couldn’t help  but feel like technology might be in the way of this traditional way of conservation. How can we really balance it out? Perhaps 3D rendering and scanning should be used to build a data base for the future. But for the present, we should not forget the small community of restoration artists/ conservationists. Perhaps it’s just me, but there is something about the human emotion that’s put into the process, it makes the restoration even more meaningful. 3D printing might have percise, cheaper, and faster, but  in the end its just a machine, and it lacks the understanding of the art we are trying to preserve.  That’s something I’d like to keep in mind, and continue thinking about.