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.


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