Art Restoration: Keeping History Alive

Ryder after

Preservation keeps us from losing something valuable to us. We write in journals and take pictures to preserve memories. We save songs to remind us of a feeling we once felt. We mark our graves to keep our name alive. These means of preservation are also used on objects that carry a similar value. Art is a fragment of human culture developed over thousands of years. Whether an ancient cave or oil on canvas, paintings have been carefully preserved over time to keep our history alive.

 

The preservation process is incredibly delicate and can lead to a worse outcome—such as tearing, chipping, or chemical burning—if an artwork does not receive proper care. Thankfully, restorations are commonly successful and extend the painting or building’s lifespan. So, how exactly do we keep historic art alive while maintaining its original dignity?

Ryden before
Ryden before

Restoring Paintings

Art restoration in the United States began in the early 20th century. Since then, restoration methods have evolved for the better. Different materials and chemical compositions continue to improve and extend the life of artworks.

 

If you’re in the market to revive an old painting, you’re in luck. Art restorers and conservators take on projects specifically for keeping artworks and their history alive. Companies like Baumgartner Fine Arts Restoration and Oliver Brothers specialize in rejuvenating paintings for art collectors and museums.

 

The process is intense and requires hours of meticulous work. Art restoration is a perfect mix between science and art. Mastering art conservation requires a strong understanding of what chemicals are safe for the painting.

Lady Liberty before and after
Lady Liberty before and after

Before removing the artwork from its stretcher, restorers take extra precautions to ensure the painting’s quality is not compromised. Art restoration expert Julian Baumgartner uses a special Japanese paper called washi kozo to protect the artwork during handling. He applies fish gelatin glue on top of the painting to bond the temporary protective film with the painting. However, not every approach is one-size fits all. Most of the time, the process depends on the state of the piece and how badly it is damaged.

 

Once the painting is safely removed from its stretcher, Baumgartner brushes off all dust and dirt from the back of the canvas and the wooden stretcher. Then moves on to separating the lining from the painting and stripping the original rabbit skin bonding glue from the back using gelled water. This process is thorough and, without proper training, can lead to more damage.

“This rabbit skin glue lining was very popular in historic conservation but is very rarely used today because we have better materials. That said, this lining was at one point a good lining but over time has failed,” Baumgartner says in one of his YouTube videos.

When he feels confident the piece is stable, Baumgartner will apply warm water to the face of the painting to active the washi kozo and begin the removal process. Then, a new lining is bonded to the back of the painting with a special heat-activated film. And finally, the cleaning and restoring process can begin. This involves removing the old varnish, replacing missing paint, and reapplying a new varnish to seal and protect the revived painting, all with safe solvents that will not distort the original portrait. A great example of this transformation is Baumgartner’s work on Madonna of the Divine Love by Raphael and Henning Ryden’s “Untitled.”

 

After the painting is cleaned, touched up on chipped areas, and restretched to the wooden stretcher, the art restoration procedure is complete.

 

Restoring paintings is not an easy process. It takes weeks of gentle handling and close precision to successfully revive the artwork. Special chemicals, solvents, and paints are created specifically for this type of work; they are made reversible for future conservators.

Raphael after
Raphael after
Raphael after
Raphael after

Restoring Architectural Paintings

Many cathedrals are famous for their glorious painted ceilings, typically illustrating angels and religious icons—one of the most famous is the Sistine Chapel. Unlike paintings on stretchers and fabric canvases, the decorated ceilings created by Michelangelo are not protected by bulletproof glass and humidity-controlled boxes. To keep this piece of history alive, extra measures need to be in place.

 

Like Baumgartner’s work and materials, unique technology is created to keep paintings safe and reduce exposure to harmful elements. To avoid damage to the paint, cathedrals, museums, and chapels will use non-UV lights to reduce the chances of the paint fading. There are also specialized HVAC systems to control room temperatures and humidity levels.

 

Without this technology, the possibility of ruining these pieces of history increases. These ceilings are a focal point for structures like the Sistine Chapel, the Palace of Versailles, and the Church of Gesù. The painted ceilings became historical art the moment they were finished. 

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral

Preserving Architecture

While paintings and ceilings can be kept in a temperature-controlled climate and safely stored in a bulletproof box, buildings must withstand weathering conditions. They are more vulnerable to natural disasters and accidental destruction.

 

Many historic buildings take preventative measures to avoid any damage that would otherwise be caused by human error or natural disasters. Fallingwater, designed by Frank Llyod Wright, is a house partially on top of a waterfall in Southeast Pennsylvania. Visitors are allowed only on a specific path throughout the house. Limiting access ensures parts of this 1930s home do not get too much traffic and run the risk of collapsing. In 1953, 1973, and 1982, Fallingwater underwent construction to replace areas of the house due to falling tree branches crushing the historic home.

 

In 2019, the Notre Dame de Paris caught fire for an unknown reason—even to this day. Many suggest it had something to do with the electronic bells in the spire short-circuiting and causing the initial flame. This type of damage requires year-long restoration and reconstruction.

Falling Water construction
Falling Water construction

Unlike Baumgartner’s work with modern materials and technology to restore paintings, scientists and architects must take a unique approach to Notre Dame’s restoration. Restorers contributing toward the cathedral’s reconstruction have noted that 21st-century materials could provide extra protection against anything like this happening again. But to maintain Notre Dame’s original design and structure, architects must stray away from sturdy materials like gold and titanium and continue with wood and lead, respecting the building’s original materials.

 

Even statues and similar structures need strict housekeeping to continue its life. Whether inside a museum, like the Statue of David, or outside, like the Statue of Liberty, both need specific restoration processes to avoid future damage. Unfortunately, the Statue of Liberty is more vulnerable to deterioration from natural disasters and weathering. Originally, Lady Liberty was a beautiful bronzey copper and has since inevitably oxidized to the seafoam green we see today. Her torch was also destroyed by heavy rainfall over the years and was replaced in 1984 with a replica.

 

Art restoration is as important as the initial paint stroke, stone cut, or blueprint drawing. From modern architecture like Fallingwater to medieval cathedrals like Notre Dame, intense and delicate care is required to continue these historical landmarks’ lives. Art restoration reminds people to care deeply for what they own, for everything has a bit of history within itself.


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