Indeed, we listened to Noelle expound upon infrared reflectography, x-radiography, and chemical varnishes before she picked up a paintbrush and delicately dabbed synthetic vermillion onto the aged canvas with equal deftness. After years of “Please Do Not Touch,” I was amazed to see her actually alter the 400-year-old painting displaying before us, a right reserved for 17th century Dutch artists and, apparently, expert conservators like her. I found it easy to compare Noelle and her colleagues to the Renaissance men whose work they helped preserve.
“I liked seeing all the different sciences [Noelle] brought together because I think a lot of people think that ‘Oh, physics is only physics, and biology is only biology,’” commented Huang Fellow Victoria Grant. “But, she was taking all these different fields and combining them. She has to be a chemist, a physicist, and she has to know [...] medical technology.”
Speaking together with William Brown, chief conservator at the museum, Noelle also cited collaborations between the North Carolina Museum of Art and Ingrid Daubechies, professor of mathematics at Duke, as examples of big developments made through interdisciplinary work.
A jar of synthetic saliva is used to mimic ancient techniques that artists used to manipulate paintings.
Noelle holds an M.A. and Certificate of Advanced Studies in Conservation from the State University College of Buffalo, at the time one of only three conservation programs in the country, for which she needed a unique background in art history, chemistry, and studio art.
For us, it was interesting to see art conservation as another role science had to play in society. Few realized how much science went into the perfect pictures that hung from the museum walls.
Science and technology gives new insight into the order and process behind creation, which is important to study in order to better understand art.
“We should appreciate the process and the work behind the restoration of paintings and the implementation of science to do that, instead of just appreciating what’s on the surface,” said Huang Fellow Brian Rhee. “Science and technology gives new insight into the order and process behind creation, which is important to study in order to better understand art.”
Many of us still had questions as we ended the tour back outside in the muggy Carolina heat. When did the inevitable markers of time on a work of art become a historical artifact of the art itself, rather than blemishes to be removed? Where did conservators draw the line between a supposedly non-intrusive retouching and an intrusive overpainting?
Huang Fellow Jake Wong was struck by a nearly shattered work of art that Noelle said had been doomed to the backroom, likely never to be restored.
“She said she could save the piece of art but it was not worth saving, because it’s not a Rembrandt. It’s a no one artist,” said Jake.