Last year, the Walker Art Gallery received a request for the loan of John Gibson’s Tinted Venus from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. John Gibson was a neo-classical sculptor who worked from studios in Rome. He first showed this sculpture at the 1862 International Exhibition, where his use of colour on marble caused quite a stir.
While many were critical of this ‘new’ way of presenting sculpture, Gibson was in fact referencing the ancient Greek practice of fully painted statuary. Gibson went on to receive commissions for two more Tinted Venuses.
This particular sculpture hadn’t been on loan since the mid-1990s and required a thorough inspection in order for us to make an informed decision about whether it could be considered for international travel.
Below you can see the Venus being carefully slid onto a lifting table, supported by a bespoke frame that was erected around her whilst in the case. Great care had to be taken as although the statue is inherently fragile it also weighs close to 300kg.
The statue was brought over to me at the sculpture conservation studio so that I could thoroughly examine it, document its condition and decide on any treatment that might be needed. Previous reports held on file showed that the Venus had been cleaned and waxed and had some areas of retouching carried out in 1996, ahead of its last loan.
I also found references to a treatment carried out in the 1960s, where some of the polychrome detail had been overpainted and a layer of gloss varnish applied. It is unclear how much of the painted surface is original.
I decided to look at the sculpture under ultra-violet light. Longwave UV lights are often used in conservation as a quick and non-destructive way of looking at the surfaces of objects in order to determine changes that may have occurred. These changes might have happened either through damage or the introduction of other materials.
The way certain materials fluoresce can even allow us to identify the types of materials that may be present, although other analytical techniques will often be used alongside UV analysis to confirm suspected findings.
As you can see from the above images the full extent of the retouching treatment that was carried out in 1996 is revealed by looking at the statue under UV light. Whilst under normal lighting conditions the areas of retouching are almost invisible to the naked eye the ultra-violet light shows them up as deep purple fluorescences. This can indicate that resinous materials may be present and/or Titanium White pigment.
It is in fact documented that both acrylic and alkyd paints were used to compensate for losses to the tinted varnish layer and Titanium white will almost certainly have been used in colour-matching to these tints. With this information I was able to make decisions about which cleaning methods to use and how far I wanted to go with the treatment.
I gave the Tinted Venus a light surface clean which both removed the layer of accumulated museum dust and revived the subtle colouration across various details. I then retouched some small areas of loss to the tinted varnish layer and re-applied a protective wax coating. Gibson’s Tinted Venus is now on show at The Met Breuer’s exhibition Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300-now).
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