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Conservation Revealed: The French Sculpture Project

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, Painting and Sculpture, 1774/1778, marble, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.110

For the first time at the National Gallery of Art, works of art are being conserved in the galleries where they are permanently exhibited, in full view of the public rather than behind the scenes in a conservation laboratory. Six marble sculptures—carved in the 17th and 18th centuries by some of the greatest sculptors working in France—will undergo conservation treatment in the elegant East Sculpture Hall of the Gallery’s West Building.

National Gallery of Art conservators will be removing dust, dirt, and grime accumulated on the sculptures over decades of display in their current location. They will also improve previous restorations that have discolored over time.

In addition to providing visitors with a rare glimpse into the world of art conservation, conserving the works in situ allows the marble sculptures to be treated in the same natural light in which they are currently exhibited. The conservators can also continually refer to the other statues, ensuring an overall sense of visual harmony. Finally, conducting the treatments in place minimizes any risks associated with moving these large and fragile works of art.

In total, this work will take approximately one year, with each sculpture requiring several months of treatment. A live video feed displayed adjacent to the sculpture will provide a close-up view of the conservation work in progress.

Throughout the initiative, this page will be updated as work progresses.

Conservation of the sculptures is funded by a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

In-Gallery Work Schedule

Watch conservation work in action Monday through Friday, 11:00 a.m.–noon and 2:00–4:00 p.m., in the East Sculpture Hall (West Building, Main Floor).

Works Undergoing Treatment

Current Work

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert’s Painting and Sculpture (1774/1778), the sculpture in the East Sculpture Hall that sustained the most damage over the past centuries, is in the final stages of treatment. Joins between the original marble, 19th-century carved marble replacements, and other areas of loss, which were previously filled with materials that had darkened over time, are currently being filled with a reversible, semitranslucent resin more closely resembling marble. Some areas require inpainting to visually integrate the surface.

Poetry and Music by Clodion is in the early stages of conservation. The marble is undergoing surface cleaning with pH-adjusted water and coating removal using organic solvents. After overall cleaning, previous restorations to losses and joins that have discolored will be removed and replaced using the method described above.

Commissioned by Abbé Terray, finance minister to King Louis XV of France, both Painting and Sculpture and Poetry and Music were part of a set of four marble sculptures designed to adorn Terray’s Paris mansion. Beautifully carved from single blocks of marble sourced from the quarries of Carrara, Italy, all four sculptures were intentionally damaged during the French Revolution and were subsequently restored in the years that followed. While the marble replacement pieces were masterfully carved, the fill materials used to integrate them no longer serve their original purpose. The current conservation treatments will return the sculptures to a more exhibitable condition that allows for better appreciation of their surfaces, the compositions, and the great skills of the artists.