The Life Of An Art Conservator: Claire Winfield Of The Saint Louis Art Museum
Depending on what work awaits her in her laboratory, Claire Winfield’s job can require her to use the analytical mind of a scientist, the careful touch of an artist or the scholarship of an art historian.
The associate painting conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum recently finished an ambitious project that required her to use all three of those skills: the restoration of 16th-century painting by Florentine artist Alessandro Allori.
Chatting about the conservation project in her lab, it’s understandable why so few people ever get to see this part of the museum. There’s art everywhere, as well as the tools of Winfield’s trade.
Specialty overhead lamps exude light that’s an exact match to the lighting in the gallery spaces. Hundreds of jars holding various shades of pigment and tinctures line the walls. The paints and other materials Winfield uses seldom are the same ones used in the work of art itself.
“You might think the best idea would be to use the same material the artist used in terms of color-matching and materials, but we actually do the opposite,” says Winfield. “We want to make sure we can remove any materials that we’ve added later, if needed.”
A large Monet is placed on a wooden easel. It appears less regal without a strip of tape on the floor instructing viewers how close they can come—yet it also seems much more real. Nearby, there’s an Egyptian funerary portrait dated sometime in the 2nd century CE. Almost 2,000 years old, it depicts a portrait of a young boy painted on wood panel.
“I don’t typically work on paintings this old,” says Winfield. “There aren’t a lot of paintings that survive this long, so this has been a real treat.”
As time has taken its toll, the wood panel eventually warped and snapped in half. In the 1960s, conservators treated the Egyptian portrait with very strong glue—the type that’s used for furniture—and Winfield has been tasked with replacing it. The problem, she says, is that the old glue is too strong, stronger than the artwork itself. If the panel warps or breaks again—as wood does—conservators aim for the break to occur in the restored area, so as not to create a new break. “It’s a physics problem: the strength of your materials, the forces and torque; there’s lots of physics and chemistry in conservation.”
Winfield’s first conservation project was a far more simple affair. She was in seventh-grade science class and used rubber cement to reassemble a smashed pot, which still sits on a shelf at her parents’ home in Louisiana, where she is from.
A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Winfield originally intended to double-major in chemistry and studio art before discovering her interests in the field of art conservation. A glimpse of the eventual career path she’d choose came to her while she studied art abroad in Florence, when she saw early Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity” for the first time, a fresco in the Santa Maria Novella church. A text panel by another painting in the church revealed that it had recently been conserved, which piqued Winfield’s interest. She remembers writing about it in her journal that night.
Only a few months after she returned to the U.S., Hurricane Katrina hit in New Orleans. It prompted Winfield to embark on an internship in conservation, for which she worked on conserving paintings and works on paper that had been damaged during the storm.
“You have direct contact with these amazing works that may not be the most highly valuable, but they are so important to the people who own them. These were the objects people had rescued from their homes. When you’re working on them, you wonder, ‘What is this?’ Then you learn it’s actually the most important thing that person has. And now it’s in our hands at the studio, where we’re trying to stabilize it.” Winfield tears up just talking about it.
She also remembers the first painting she ever restored: a picture of a ship that had endured significant damage from the hurricane. She worked to recreate the waves through inpainting—the delicate process of reintroducing paint into areas of loss —but not so much that the restoration fundamentally changes the nature of the work.
“It’s amazing to watch parts of a painting that used to be distracting losses almost magically go away. It’s the most satisfying thing, to take something that’s been damaged and repair it.”
After that, Winfield was hooked.
“Lo and behold, the harebrained idea of studying studio art and chemistry in college aligned. I applied to graduate schools, and I was accepted. It’s not typical that people get in on their first try. The programs in the United States take 10 or fewer students per year. Two years of chemistry are required, plus two or more years of both art history and of studio art. Having a wide range of experience is required, too. At that point, I had taken painting, drawing, photography, 2-D and 3-D design, printmaking, glassblowing and ceramics, and in art history I had studied ancient art, Asian art, European art, photography, modern art and contemporary art. It’s a challenge to get into this field.”
After a life of traveling and moving from school to school, internship to internship—’vagabonding,’ as Winfield calls it—it’s fitting that her journey led her back to St. Louis, where her higher education started. She started at the St. Louis Art Museum in 2012.
“At the Art Museum, we have all of these beautiful, amazing objects, kept through time as a symbol of our culture and what’s important to us as people. And if something happens to them—which is just life on Earth, really—we’re able to bring them back to remarkable condition so that they can be appreciated again.”
Despite years of training, and a trade that has gone on as long as the act of creating art itself, there are limits to what conservators can reasonably repair. “We can’t fix everything. The typical conservation answer for anything is, ‘It depends.’ Objects often live in a gray area,” says Winfield.
That’s what makes transformative projects like the Allori painting so special.
At around 400 years old, the impact of time on the painting was evident in some areas. In addition, the painting’s detailed brushwork and vibrant colors were obscured by old, synthetic varnish, which becomes grey and matte over time. When the varnish was removed, new details emerged. With the use of infrared reflectography, areas of Allori’s underdrawings and changes were revealed, providing Winfield and the curator with more information about the artist’s technique and the authenticity of the painting.
The painting was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1537 to 1569. When his wife died, he married his mistress, Camilla Martelli, much to the chagrin of his children. The painting is a portrait of Camilla, who was considered to be flamboyant, wearing her finest clothes and jewels.
After the completed restoration of the painting, Winfield saved the palette she used to inpaint. Holding it up, she points to the dried swatches, which have several iterations of deep crimson, lightening and darkening as she added more colors. The crimson colors were used to repair areas on the damaged bodice, which had weathered and chipped over the years. “These artworks have had a life,” she says.
The newly restored Allori painting is on view in Gallery 236.
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