The Science of Art: Technical Analysis Leads to New Discoveries

Looking toward a five-venue tour for the works in the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection—and the publication of an accompanying exhibition catalogue—the collection’s diverse group of sculptures was recently examined. In conducting such studies, conservators assess the overall stability of a sculpture, including the current state of preservation of the surface and the physical stability of the whole object. Its strengths and weaknesses are determined so that appropriate stabilization can be achieved in advance of extended travel.

The conservator also works with the crate-builder to design packing that will enable a sculpture to withstand the rigors of travel as well as repeated installations and deinstallations. Moreover, a sculpture conservator will determine safe environmental exhibition parameters (light levels, temperature, and relative humidity) and, in cooperation with the exhibition designers, recommend effective bases, vitrines, and mounts. 

In addition to mitigating practical concerns, conservation analyses also strengthen our understanding of how works of art were physically realized and why they look the way they do today. Close study of the materials and method of manufacture illuminates the artist’s process and can enhance art historians’ understanding of a work of art. 

Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903: Woman of Martinique, 1887. Painted terracotta, h. 19.7 cm. The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection. Photo: Bruce M. WhiteOf all the many technical examinations completed, the analysis of Paul Gauguin’s Woman of Martinique (1887) presented the most unexpected results. This small sculpture was known to be terracotta, painted dark green to simulate patinated bronze. Microscopic examination revealed that the sculpture had collage elements, such as armbands made of ribbon and a paper necklace. The light-colored armbands and gold necklace, along with the terracotta-colored headscarf, would have provided a colorful contrast to the dark green paint. 



A bigger surprise came with x-radiography. Conservators who examined the work previously, during routine condition checks, observed that the terracotta was unusually soft, but it was always assumed to be a very low-fired ceramic. The radiograph revealed that the clay sculpture was formed over a thin, rectangular sheet of non-ferrous metal. The clay body is so tightly formed around the metal that we can eliminate the possibility that the metal strip was a restoration reinforcement inserted after the sculpture’s manufacture. Rather, it must have been placed there as a support for the figure from the beginning. It is impossible to fire a clay body with a metal armature because the materials’ different rates of expansion would cause the object to shatter; therefore, we must conclude that Gauguin himself molded the clay around the support and that the ensemble is unfired.

Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903: Te Fare Amu, 1901-02. Polychrome woodcarving, 24.8 x 147.7 cm. The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection. Photo: Bruce M. WhiteGauguin’s wood relief Te Fare Amu (1901–02) also contained a surprise. A serious editorial suppression of Gauguin’s original concept has occurred, and it is interesting as a reflection of its time. In his essay “Reminiscences of a Collector” (1959), Henry Pearlman relates his acquisition and subsequent treatment of Te Fare Amu, explaining that he had the labia on the left-most kneeling figure disguised because he was afraid that U.S. Customs would confiscate the relief upon import:
On one visit to Paris, I saw a sculptured and painted wood panel by Gauguin in a large well-known gallery on the Left Bank. It was quite sensual, and I figured it would not be easily accepted by the American public. I passed it over, but during the following year I kept thinking of it, and resolved that the next time I got to Paris I would look at it again.
Reading through books on Gauguin, I found that the words on the panel, “TE FARE AMU,” meant “House of Joy” in the Tahitian language. The right side of the panel depicts a man and a woman together with an animal nearby that represents perfidy. The center, beneath the words, shows a fetus as it grows into a worm and then a tadpole. On the left side of the panel is the image of a prostitute, with her genitals exposed and red buttons running up her spine denoting passion.
With close visual examination, or ultraviolet examination, a green-painted fill in the area that Pearlman describes can be identified. Once again, x-radiography revealed what is hidden to the eye. Because of differences in the density in wood due to carving, and the opacity of heavy metal pigments to x-ray, the film showed that the labia are still present; they were carved into the wood and painted in a pigment similar to other red pigments on the relief. The relief carving is so low and flat that this panel can be thought of as a painting on wood rather than a relief sculpture. Gauguin outlined the shapes with a sharp tool that gave clean definition when he worked parallel to the grain but fractured the wood when he carved perpendicular to the grain. He also used a u-shaped chisel for added details—for example, in the orange fringe in the black hair of the figure on the far right. 
Jacquez Lipchitz, French, active in the United States, 1891-1973: Acrobat on Horse, 1914. Bronze, 53.7x44.5x23 cm. The Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection. (c) Estate of Jacques Lipchitz/ photo: Bruce M. WhiteTechnical examination of the bronze sculptures in the Pearlman Collection also yielded a few unexpected details that increase our knowledge of casting practices in the first half of the twentieth century. Jacques Lipchitz’s Acrobat on Horse (1914) was cast in lost wax (cire perdue) by Claude Valsuani, active in Paris from 1908 to 1940 and again after the war. It displays the fine black patina for which Claude was justly famous—“Valsuani black,” dense, rich, and deep, is one of the most celebrated patinas of this foundry, and Acrobat on Horse is a prime example. X-radiography shows how beautifully cast the figure and horse are, with an even wall thickness containing a well-secured interior ceramic core. Because of the complexity of the shapes, there was some drift of the core, especially at the outermost areas such as the acrobat’s legs and the horse’s raised hoof, resulting in some walls that are slightly thicker than others. The flat base, however, is sloppily cast. We can see large patches of secondary castings. We do not know if they represent the foundry’s solution to lost wax casting of a flat element or whether they are repairs to an incompletely cast element.
These discoveries are but highlights from an extensive examination of thirteen sculptures that span a period of eighty years—from the 1887 terracotta by Gauguin discussed here to the latest, a 1960s bronze by Giacomo Manzù—and represent a range of artistic styles and media. The sculptures in the Henry and Rose Pearlman Collection have brought enjoyment to three generations of the family and countless Museum visitors. As more information about these artworks is discovered by art-historical and technical studies, our appreciation increases alongside.
Lynda Zycherman
Sculpture Conservator