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Conservation Revealed: The French Sculpture Project

Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert, Painting and Sculpture, 1774/17781774/1778

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 Wednesdays through Fridays, 11:00 a.m.–noon and 2:00–4:00 p.m., in the East Sculpture Hall (West Building, Main Floor).

Chat with the conservator at 1:30 p.m. on scheduled workdays.

Works Undergoing Treatment

Current Work

The first sculpture to be conserved is Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert’s Painting and Sculpture (1774/1778).

Commissioned by Abbé Terray, finance minister to King Louis XV of France, Painting and Sculpture was one of four marble sculpture groups designed to adorn Terray’s Paris mansion. Poetry and Music by Clodion, part of the same set and displayed nearby, will also be treated during this project.

Beautifully carved from a single block of marble sourced from the quarries of Carrara, Italy, Painting and Sculpture is no longer in the condition it once was. Severe damages that occurred while the sculpture was on display in Europe were previously restored using materials that have discolored and deteriorated over time. These discolored fills no longer serve their purpose and now stand out as dark spots or lines. The sculpture also has accumulated an embedded layer of dirt and oily grime transferred from the thousands of hands that have touched the sculpture over the centuries, as well as dust and dirt from the surrounding environment.

The sculpture will be incrementally cleaned using water-based solutions, surfactants (mild detergents), and organic solvents. After overall cleaning, the previous restorations will be removed and replaced with modern conservation materials that are reversible and more closely matched to the translucency of the surrounding stone.