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News Student Blog: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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WUDPAC Fellow Alexa Beller removing the gilt border from The Death and Assumption of the Virgin (images: Gianfranco Pocobene)

​​​​I am happy to be spending my third year in the Boston area splitting my time between Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM) and the private practice of Gianfranco Pocobene (ISGM's Head of Conservation and Paintings Conservator). This arrangement has given me the unique opportunity to treat and research a broad range of easel paintings, on both panel and canvas, further pursue my interest in mural conservation, and more fully understand museum and private practice structures. Gianfranco has been an excellent mentor and even though we have been extremely busy here since my arrival in September – it's always great fun and a superb learning experience!

During my internship I have already treated a wide variety of paintings and murals by artists such as Puvis de Chavannes, Botticelli, Zurbarán, d'Amelia, Ruisdael, Largillière, Guidicini, Rauschenberg, and Reed and have begun research projects on paintings by Fra Angelico and Matisse. There really isn't ever a dull or idle moment!

The painting I have been researching for the past few months, and which I will be focusing on for the duration of my internship, is a portion of a reliquary by Fra Angelico (1400-1455) entitled The Death and Assumption of the Virgin (1430-1434) in the Gardner Museum’s collection. Fra Angelico, born Guido di Pietro, was a Dominican friar who became a highly respected painter and illuminator during the early Italian Renaissance. He painted the Gardner’s panel, along with three others currently at the Museo di San Marco in Florence, as a reliquary set for the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. The Gardner records indicate that the altarpiece remained in the church until at least 1754; the next mention of the Gardner panel was in England in the mid-19th century. Before its purchase by Mrs. Gardner in 1899, the panel had undergone a series of interventions including separation from the other portions of the altarpiece, removal of its original engaged frame, and alteration of the dimensions of the panel; two upper corners were attached and painted to change the composition from an ogee shape to a rectangle; a gilded border was applied over original paint; the original faux porphyry on the verso of the panel was painted over, and portions of the sky were overpainted to help integrate the added corners. Since its purchase by Gardner, the painting has been displayed in a frame that covers the added corners so often viewers don’t realize the intervention had occurred unless they have seen an image of the painting unframed. 

​​An overall image and an X-radiograph detail of The Death and Assumption of the Virgin (1430-1434) (images: Alexa Beller, Lydia Vagts and Gianfranco Pocobene)​

My goals for this project are varied. Not only am I hoping to gain a better understanding of the materials and techniques used by Fra Angelico to create this gorgeous and striking work, but I’m also working to understand the original dimensions of the panel, the orientation of the panels within the altarpiece, and whether any of the interventions should be reversed. Thus far Gianfranco, the Assistant Curator Nat Silver, and I have decided to remove the 19th-century gilded border to recover hidden original paint visible in the x-radiograph. Luckily, this added border of thin gesso and gilding softens readily with moisture and can then be reduced mechanically without damaging the original paint underneath. Although it is exciting to recover more of the original composition, these newly exposed areas will be seen only in images of the unframed painting and during this exhibition. The Museum’s policy, based on Mrs. Gardner’s will, is to display her collection of artworks in the same manner in which she herself chose to display them. This means that while it is in the galleries of the house, the painting will be returned to its old frame that covers this border. 

I have been working with XRF (x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy) elemental mapping, pXRF (identifying elemental composition of individual sites with a portable phaser), infrared reflectography, ultraviolet images, and x-radiography. My research and treatment are in preparation for an upcoming Fra Angelico exhibition hosted at the Gardner and Museo di San Marco during which the altarpiece will be reunited for the first time. The panels in Florence will also be treated and researched; I'm looking forward to collaboration with Italian conservators on this project.

I owe a great deal to my fantastic WUDPAC paintings conservation supervisors Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, Matt Cushman, and Richard Wolbers who armed me with a solid foundational knowledge of treatment and research approaches. I never would have been able to treat the paintings I have this year or establish the research projects I have embarked upon without the background they provided to me in Delaware and their continued support.

The next half of my third year should be quite the adventure if it's anything like my past five months. I'm looking forward to upcoming treatments in both studios as well as to traveling around New England to work on additional mural projects. I really cannot imagine a better place for me to round out my graduate studies in paintings conservation and am so grateful for this opportunity!​

— Alexa Beller, WUDPAC Class of 2017

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​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2017 Fellow Alexa Beller discusses her third-year internship projects at sites including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2017 Fellow Alexa Beller discusses her third-year internship projects at sites including the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489