the Art gallery as laboratory The chemistry of Art Conservation

We sometimes like to categorize science and art as being diametrically opposed. But the reality is that they often work hand in hand, and art conservation is just one example. Last week, over 40 Chemistry majors gathered in Hanes Gallery (along with dozens of additional students via Zoom) to learn about the science of art preservation with master conservator Heather Galloway. Galloway asserts that artists have always functioned as proto-scientists:

“We are always eager to point out to our students the many paths open to them as they study chemistry. While most come in knowing that chemistry will prepare them well for a medical or academic career, there are so many other ways they could use their chemistry training. And they are always excited to learn about "non-traditional" routes.”

— Dr. Rebecca Alexander, Professor of Chemistry, Associate Dean for Research and Community Engagement, Director of Wake Downtown

"As an undergraduate I was a studio are major. I then went on to get a MA in Art History and while in grad school I got a work study position at the Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory. It didn’t take long from there to realize that my hand skills allowed me to work with art objects while exploring them historically, all I was missing at that point was chemistry. I then had to take general and organic chemistry to satisfy the pre-requisites for graduate school." 

— Heather Galloway, founder and owner of Galloway Art Conservation, LLC, and a peer-reviewed Fellow in the American Institute for Conservation

"Partnering with the Department of Chemistry was a fabulous experience—Rebecca was immediately enthusiastic. This event with the Chemistry department allowed for that crossover and interconnection between chemistry and art that doesn’t always happen in our respective departments and buildings on campus."

— Jennifer Finkel, Acquavella Curator of Wake Forest Art Collections

The exhibition Spotlight / Katz & Copley highlights two paintings from WFU Art Collections. Both Alex Katz’s Vincent with Open Mouth and John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Rogers, Elizabeth Gorham Rogers have recently undergone conservation, and presenting them together allows an opportunity to discuss the processes applied to repair them, compare two American portraits separated by more than 200 years, and to see these two works of portraiture in light of our age of the selfie. There is continuity from the life-sized Copley, to the huge scale of the Katz, to the many images you might have on the small screen of your smartphone of you or your friends.

Let's take a look at these two paintings:

John Singleton Copley's "Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Rogers, Elizabeth Gorham Rogers"
John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Rogers (Elizabeth Gorham Rogers), 1762, oil on canvas, The Philip and Charlotte Hanes Wake Forest University Art Collection
John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Mrs. Daniel Rogers, Elizabeth Gorham Rogers, dates from 1762. Copley is one of the most renowned colonial-era painters, known for portraits of important figures such as Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, as well as for dramatic scenes such as the National Gallery’s Watson and the Shark (1778). By the date of the portrait, Copley was the leading portrait painter in the American colonies. The political events of the late 1760s and early 1770s split Copley’s clientele into opposing camps. Some of his patrons were Patriots and radicals; some were Loyalists. In Boston, Copley was especially impacted by the increased political turmoil in the wake of the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. His father-in-law had been one of the merchants who was supposed to receive the tea dumped in the harbor. This unrest, along with the desire for the esteem and seriousness associated with European art practices, spurred his departure for London in June 1774.

The subject of this portrait is Elizabeth Gorham. A daughter of Colonel John Gorham and Elizabeth Allen, of Barnstable, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, where her father was a member of the King’s army. She later married Mr. Daniel Rogers, a prominent merchant in Gloucester.

The painting has a remarkable provenance. It remained within the family for generations; there was only one previous owner outside of the family before it was purchased by Mr. R. Philip Hanes in the early 1970s and then gifted to Wake Forest University in 1991.

Detail: before conservation

Detail: after conservation

conservation: Ruth Barach Cox, Painting Conservation, Inc.

Now let's look at another portrait—this one by a contemporary artist:

Alex Katz’s "Vincent with Open Mouth"
Alex Katz, Vincent with Open Mouth, 1970, oil on canvas, Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art, Art © Alex Katz /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Alex Katz in his studio

Alex Katz began concentrating on casual portraiture of family and friends in the late 1950s. Vincent with Open Mouth, from 1970, represents his ten-year-old son. Here he extends his distinctive approach to painting the human face: large scale, drastic cropping, flattened surfaces, economy of line, and sharp juxtapositions of scale to create a particularly imposing image.

left: Ellsworth Kelly. right: Roy Lichtenstein.

Katz was one of the first artists to return to figurative painting following Abstract Expressionism’s dominance in the 1950s. His simplification of forms and elimination of detail relates to hard-edged Color-Field painting and to Pop Art’s emulation of commercial graphics, two early 1960s styles that influenced him. Katz created what art historian Robert Storr called “a new and distinctive type of realism in American art which combines aspects of both abstraction and representation.”

Katz’s prolific output of portraits – including over 250 of his wife and muse, Ada – reveals a fascination with human nature and yet the artist is never one to dwell on inner psychology. The changing quality of light and strong contrasts of sun and shade across the face further indicate Katz’s interest in the specific moment.

Detail: before conservation

"One of the most challenging things about working on Alex Katz’s portrait of his son Vincent was the large scale of the painting which made even the smallest task and movement around my studio an exercise in careful planning with additional hands." - Heather Galloway

Detail: after conservation

conservation: Heather Galloway, Galloway Art Conservation, LLC

"The most joyful part of working on the project was having the chance to live with the painting for an extended period of time. Katz’s color choice and forms are so pared down—nothing goes to waste, and the paint application is lively and confident. It’s amazing to get to know the painting over an extended time not just for my enjoyment but for my understanding of how the materials." - Heather Galloway

"Conserving objects in our collection is our responsibility as stewards of the art collection. Caring for the artwork, which includes conservation treatments, when necessary, is the responsibility of having a collection. Wake Forest has a world-class art collection and it is necessary to have works cleaned, preserved, and occasionally repaired in an effort to maintain and improve the physical condition from either damage or deterioration in order to preserve and even extend the life of an artwork. The Wake Forest Art Collection is a teaching collection, meaning that artworks need to be available to students and faculty. Therefore, we need to do our best to ensure that the objects in our care are in good to excellent condition for future generations."

— Jennifer Finkel

"Keep in mind that most of us in the profession have strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard to be good at it all. It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the along the requirements but it also presents great opportunities to collaborate with others." - Heather Galloway
“Combinations like this are just what our excellent Wake Forest students are well-suited for! We have so many STEM students with passion for and talent in the arts, and it's great when they can use all their strengths.”

— Dr. Rebecca Alexander

This event was made possible by Wake Forest's Interdisciplinary Arts Center. In the spirit of radical collaboration, the IAC supports projects that bring together the arts with other Wake Forest departments and disciplines.

"'The Science of Painting Conservation' was a natural fit for IAC support. I would encourage any student, faculty or staff who is seeking support or funding for an interdisciplinary project to reach out IAC. It is an easy application process and there is nothing too outside the box that won’t be considered!"

— Jennifer Finkel, Acquavella Curator of Wake Forest Art Collections

Created By
Steve Morrison