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News Student Blog: The Morgan Library & Museum

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Jacob de Wit (?), The Four Fathers of the Church, 18th century. 14-3/4 x 10 in. (375 x 255 mm) H x W, brush and brown ink with opaque white watercolor squared in graphite on wove blue paper (faded to gray). Accession number 2009.339. Left: Before treatment photograph of recto (front). Right: Before treatment photograph of verso (back).

My return to New York City after several years away has been an experience in both the familiar and the new. I walk through mid-town Manhattan on my morning commute and remember how I used to come here as a child with my parents. I am a second generation Chinese-American born and raised in New York. My dad embodied the American dream; he, who immigrated to the states very young, worked below minimum wage jobs, studied hard at City College, and eventually found himself employed at JPMorgan Chase & Co. My mom saved her earnings as a seamstress and came to own a garment factory in Chinatown. The Morgan Library & Museum, where I am completing my third-year internship with paper conservators in the Thaw Conservation Center, is straddled on either side by the garment district and the J.P. Morgan Global Wealth Management building. As an adolescent I ambled though these streets accompanied by pencil and paper, and this is when my love of paper as a material began, then as an artist, and now as a conservator.

The Morgan Library & Museum was the private collection of John Pierpont Morgan Sr. (1837 – 1913), who was an American financier and banker, as well as a notable collector of manuscripts, early printed books, drawings, and prints. Beyond the founding collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, the Morgan represents one of the finest collections of works of art on paper by twentieth and twenty-first century artists. I was drawn to the museum’s diverse collection, which reflects the mission of the Morgan to be a repository for the greatest examples of creative expression and Mr. Morgan’s own ambition, when he was alive, to acquire the works of living artists and writers.

​Left: WUDPAC Class of 2018 Fellow Jacklyn Chi performing capillary washing through the verso, using deionized water adjusted to a pH of 8 as the bathing solution. Right: A significant amount of adhesive residues and acidic degradation products in the support were released during the capillary washing procedure.

Among my first introductions to the institution was a highlights tour of the collection and the historical spaces Mr. Morgan once occupied. One of the things that struck me most during this tour was a discussion of the 16th century tapestry hanging in the grand library of the McKim building, The Triumph of Avarice. This tapestry, part of a series depicting the seven deadly sins, has a Latin inscription that translates, "As Tantalus is ever thirsty in the midst of water, so is the miser always desirous of riches." It was a symbolic reminder to Mr. Morgan of the downfall of greed for money and power, and this message has had surprising resonance for one of my most challenging treatments as an intern, a late 17th to early 18th century drawing attributed to the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit.

De Wit’s drawing, titled Four Fathers of the Church, was part of the Joseph F. McCrindle bequest made in 2009. The piece is executed in brush and brown ink with opaque white watercolor and partially squared in graphite on a wove blue paper that is now faded. The media is considerably abraded, and the support is severely stained and discolored. Examination also revealed that the drawing had been treated before. Two layers of paper were added to the back. The secondary support is a white laid paper and the tertiary support is a thick blue modern paper. Many of the losses and breaks in the primary support were thus concealed through in-painting and overall loss compensation. The adhesive present is crude animal glue that is thick, granular, and uneven in its application. In addition to gaining more experience and confidence with such a complex treatment, I gravitated to this piece because I wanted to overcome the psychological hurdle of handling and treating a master drawing that is over 300 years old.

A variety of Western papers were selected for creating sheets of cast paper pulp (left). To do this, the papers were cut into small pieces, soaked in water for several hours, then placed in a blender (right).

While little is known about the drawing’s history, I learned in my research that De Wit was internationally celebrated as an illusionist painter and specialized in painting commissions for large interior spaces. He was often referred to as the “Titian of the Amstel” and the “Reubens of the 18th century.” De Wit’s drawing style had evolved over his career from red chalk with hatched shading—a style he used while working in Antwerp—to the distinctive pen drawings and fine chalk sketches he came to be known for once he relocated to Amsterdam. The artist’s predilection for pale colored paper, especially blue, was used to his advantage as a means of heightening the illusion of space in his studies.

Further discussion with the Morgan’s curators has suggested that the imagery being depicted may be derived from Metamorphoses, a narrative poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid, completed in 8 CE. The epic poem chronicles the creation and history of the world with each story containing a tale of transformation (i.e., metamorphosis). The story in Book I tells of the Giants who rose up in war against Jupiter by piling Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa in attempts to reach Olympus. Their efforts were thwarted by Jupiter, who knocked the mountains over and the Giants plummeted to the ground, leaving the Earth to soak their blood and create a new race in their image—that of humans.

The pulp was cast and toned with acrylics to match the color of the primary support for later use as an insert paper.

Despite the remaining uncertainty surrounding the drawing’s imagery, I found this potential association to be synchronous with the scope of treatment to be undertaken, offering the opportunity to face many of the condition issues that test even the most experienced of paper conservators. The process of removing the secondary and tertiary layers was eased with the aid of a rigid gel, which allowed for the gradual introduction of moisture to soften the aged animal glue binding the layers of paper together. After bathing, the clarity of the drawing has improved drastically, allowing for the delicate rendering of the distressed facial expressions and the contortion of the falling bodies to be viewed with greater legibility. The stiff and tenacious adhesive that remains on the back of the primary support will be addressed with further mechanical reduction. The losses and tears, now revealed, will be filled with a blend of paper pulps formulated to achieve a tone and color similar to the original. Treatment is still ongoing, but once completed the primary support will be stable once again, and it is my hope that the renewed intelligibility of its lines will spark the potential for future visual and scholarly interest in the drawing.

At the beginning of this blog post, I mentioned my love of paper, and this is often a sentiment I find difficult to communicate. Its ubiquity belies its ultimate value to us. Paper takes up little physical room in our lives, and yet, it carries the words and images of our past through the centuries and into the shared spaces of today’s museums and galleries, the familial spaces of our home scrapbooks and albums, and the personal spaces of our letters and diaries. A sheet of paper can store mysteries yet to be solved, represent tales of transformation, and, at its beginnings, be a blank slate for stories yet to be told. My time at the Morgan Library & Museum has been, symbolically, a bildungsroman in paper conservation—a time of education, development, and maturation, and I am excited to see what will be on the next page.

— Jacklyn Chi, WUDPAC Class of 2018

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2018 Fellow Jacklyn Chi talks about working with the collections and staff at the Morgan Library & Museum’s Thaw Conservation Center, and her treatment of a drawing attributed to the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit.

In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2018 Fellow Jacklyn Chi talks about working with the collections and staff at the Morgan Library & Museum’s Thaw Conservation Center, and her treatment of a drawing attributed to the Dutch artist Jacob de Wit.

2/27/2018
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu