Art & Design Magazine

Spring Cleaning for Alice Pike Barney

By Americanart

Claire Walker, Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Paintings Conservation at American Art's Lunder Conservation Center, tells us how conservators clean paintings.


Claire Walker works on Hubert Vos's Alice Barney in White Satin

Alice Barney in White Satin, an oil painting on canvas by Hubert Vos, was recently treated at the Lunder Conservation Center. Alice Pike Barney was an artist herself, and several of her works are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection.

Conservators monitor and treat works as part of routine maintenance and address issues including damage, natural deterioration, and storage and display conditions. This painting came to the Lunder Conservation Center because of surface dirt and discolored natural resin varnish. Natural resins yellow and darken over time as part of their normal aging process. This gives the painting’s surface a yellow cast and masks the artist’s colors, particularly the delicate play of warm and cool pastel tones in Alice’s dress. Dirt darkens the image, but also speeds the deterioration of the artist’s materials and detracts from the artwork.

After careful testing, the conservation treatment began with the removal of dirt from the surface using a pH balanced water-based solution. Then the discolored varnish was removed using a solvent gel. A new, synthetic (and non-yellowing) varnish was applied to the surface to provide an even saturation and sheen overall. Several small losses along the painting’s edge were inpainted with a varnished-based conservation paint that can be removed easily by the next conservator.

Spring Cleaning for Alice Pike Barney

Before and After Removal of Discolored Varnish

Now Alice looks as bright and vibrant as ever, just in time for spring in D.C.! Look for Alice on the second floor at the Renwick Gallery in the coming weeks and visit our Facebook page for more treatment photos.

  • Lunder Conservation Center, Art Conservation, American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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