Williamstown Art Conservation Center: Where paintings are brought back to life

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Unlike most of us, Montserrat Le Mense is allowed to touch the art. Actually, museums count on it.

A conservator of paintings at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC), Le Mense has been cleaning and repairing works from the organization's 55 member institutions, the public and various nonprofits for more than 20 years.

"We're a little bit like an ER," Le Mense said near her easel a couple of weeks ago, a pair of latex gloves below the piece at the WACC's home, Clark Art Institute's Lunder Center at Stone Hill.

While Le Mense's emergency room comparison stems from the blemishes that afflict some pieces, the conservator doesn't always see paintings in such bad shape. One of her most recent projects, "Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde" (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, is the Clark's latest acquisition. The oil-on-canvas depicts a young boy sporting military regalia as an homage to his father, Baron Jean-Baptiste Deban de Laborde, who died during the Napoleonic Wars (at the Battle of Wagram in 1809). Dubois-Drahonet primarily worked as a portraitist but also produced a number of studies of military uniforms. His work was notable for its clean lines and a command of light similar to that of his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

The portrait will soon be hanging in one of the Clark's galleries; it was Le Mense's job to get it ready. It arrived in unusually good condition.

"This one's in fantastic shape and has not had any difficulties in its life," Le Mense said during a break from her work a couple weeks ago. "It doesn't have any tears. It doesn't have any damages. It's maybe been cleaned once before, maybe not. It might never have been cleaned at all. So, he's an exception. He's kind of a golden boy."

Two centuries have passed since Dubois-Drahonet finished the portrait, and yet: "It's come to us pretty much just the way the artist put it on its stretcher, on this framework," Le Mense said.

That doesn't mean there was little work involved to prepare it for the museum.

First, Le Mense needed to remove the dust and the dirt that had accumulated around the sides and in back of the painting. Then she had to clear a layer of grime from the portrait itself using a water-based treatment.

"[Just as] your walls will get dirty, a painting will get dirty," she said, adding that the grime was atop an old layer of varnish, a natural resin that yellows over time. Le Mense compared how varnish affects a painting to spotting a stone underwater and seeing all of its "incredible colors." When it's removed from the water and dries, it may just look gray, she said. In that situation, the water acts as a varnish.

Adding and subtracting varnish layers, then, are often substantial parts of a painting's treatment. With this particular painting, which had only one layer of varnish, Le Mense's goal was to "take the dirt off and thin the varnish back, not all the way, but to reduce the amount of yellowing and bring back the color into the painting."

Playing it safe was essential.

"We don't want to strip anything off. ... I'd rather leave a little bit there for the next person 100 years from now to worry about if it's darkened too much," she said.

At the time of this reporter's visit, Le Mense was at an in-between stage, having already cleaned the work and thinned the previous varnish with solvents. She was now restoring some of the color to the piece through a varnish-applying process called inpainting.

"We're trying to paint into the loss," she said.

Over time, the even northern light from the large windows facing the work slowly saturates the colors. Le Mense is grateful to the Clark — which finished constructing the steel and concrete block building overlooking the museum's main campus in 2008 — for taking the light's effect on conservation into consideration.

"If you have light that's bouncing off of a lot of green or dark buildings or something, the light gets colored, so then it affects your ability to color match," she said.

The ability to reverse any retouching is critical, but Le Mense is meticulous and focused enough to make that seem like an unlikely scenario. Armed with a $15 Winsor & Newton Series 7 brush ("I know that it's the best brush. ... It hold its shape, and you get that fantastic point. And it stands up to a lot of abuse.") and a smeared palette, Le Mense went to work on a Legion of Honour medal in the painting's upper-left corner. She was already pleased with how the red of Achille's pants and the purple of the chair behind him were coming out.

When the project began, Le Mense had estimated that the painting would take about 60 hours to treat. She juggles multiple works at a time, switching during drying periods. She listens to audiobooks while she tends to the pieces. It helps her mind return to each work.

"I come back, I put the headphones on and then start the book, and my hand just seems to remember where I was," she said.

Each conservator at the lab treats 30 to 35 paintings per year, according to Le Mense. Some major museums can afford their own conservation staffs, but Le Mense appreciates working at a regional center where she gets to see a broad range of creativity.

"It's not a museum that you work at that has a very strong collection of this curator," she said. "It's whatever comes in the door, whatever needs help."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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