SANTA FE, N.M. — For centuries, they absorbed the sorrows and fears of the faithful as prayers streamed past in the hopes that Heaven would hear and respond. But the Spanish colonial devotional images absorbed a lot more along the way. Soot from candles – sometimes even flecks of wax if they were burning close. Specks from flies and other insects. Oils from human hands brushing over their favorite saints in a petition for healing.
Or they suffered even worse, such as water damage and streaks of bird excrement, if the paintings spent time in deteriorating buildings. Or the canvases themselves may have been folded and creased to aid in transit.
Add to that flaking paint, discolored varnish and more.
By the time she’s done fixing what she can, Cynthia Lawrence hopes her work is undetectable and viewers can enjoy both the intent of the artist and the history of the image – along with the preservation of the culture.
“My goal, especially with Spanish colonial art, is that condition be a non-issue when you look at it,” she said.
In other words, the cleaning shouldn’t be so radical that you’re startled by the brightness of the colors, but quiet conservation work also should keep you from being distracted by deterioration or faults in the image.
An art conservator based in Denver, Lawrence has been busy these days in preparing paintings for an upcoming exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum, “Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World,” opening June 29 and on display through March 29, 2015.
Almost three dozen of the images come from a collection donated in 2005 by Charles W. and Nina Perera Collier, which once had been housed at Los Luceros as their International Institute of Iberian Colonial Art. Many of the paintings were collected while John Collier was a cultural attaché to Bolivia.
“They’ve been here in storage. It will be just great to exhibit them together,” said Josef Díaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican colonial art and history collections, standing at the head of long rolling rows of paintings hanging in the collections storage area.
“But some of the paintings need a little TLC,” he added.
That’s where Lawrence comes in.
Her work is an odd mix of art history, chemistry and – well, art itself.
She has to understand the composition of the original materials used in the painting and how they would naturally age – some old green pigments, for example, contain a chemical that make them increasingly brown over time. There’s nothing to be done about that, Lawrence said.
She has to be able to analyze the varnish – the top sealing layer on a painting – and understand how best to remove it. Most varnishes naturally yellow over time, changing the cast of color in a composition, similar to viewing a painting through a colored filter.
Varnishes were intended to be removed and replaced regularly, she added. In some cases, though, past work may have added varnish over an inadequate cleaning or over residual varnish, trapping layers of distraction over the painting’s surface.
Art not protected
“A lot of Spanish colonial painting tends to be in worse condition because it wasn’t considered fine art,” Lawrence said. It was not as protected or carefully preserved as some other paintings.
As paintings were transported and/or reframed, she said, they often lost some of their borders. She pointed out some compositions where torsos at the edge probably once had a bit more elbow room, or where a matching flower or similar detail probably once existed to echo one at the other side.
On a painting still awaiting her touch, Lawrence pointed out the details that are not obvious to the untutored eye.
“The Divine Shepherdess,” painted in the 18th century by José de Páez (1720-1790), probably in Mexico City, shows Our Lady reclining on the ground with sheep and flowers winding around her. The image stems from an apparition of Our Lady in 1703 to a Spanish Capuchin friar; she apparently promised she would help him spread the Christian gospel if he would commission a painting of her as she described it, according to Díaz.
This is not that original painting, but one that followed over the years, he added.
Lawrence pointed out a shortened canvas that did not wrap over the frame, along with a second canvas that had been glued behind the painting, probably to help it lie flatter.
She drew attention to areas that were repainted, one where the blue didn’t match the older pigment and another area where an inscription suddenly cuts off in a repainted section.
“The color would have been more vivid,” she said of the original work. “The flowers would have stood out much more; the foliage would have been much more green.”
Just by wiping some scientific-grade mineral spirits on a cotton swab over the painting, removing just a tiny bit of the grime, she revealed how the painting acquired more depth, with details and textures emerging.
A delicate balance
Conservation work is a delicate balance of allowing natural aging and respecting the history of the piece, while slowing or reversing some aspects of deterioration, Lawrence said. It’s not a matter of restoring the image to its original state.
“Aesthetic issues become the curator’s call,” she added.
And working with a museum is a particular treat, Lawrence said.
“One of the joys in working with a museum is working with an art historian and curator,” she said. “We understand much more together.”