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Behind the Paint


Looking relaxed and confident, Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, contemplates the world. Before she came to the museum in the early 1900s,  she had been worshipped and cared for by Buddhist attendants for eight centuries. Along the way, the paint that animated her wooden form was refreshed, in successive layers of cinnabar, iron lead, and red lead. Zinc white likely dates from the 19th century, while traces of green suggest complex early recipes for brilliant polychrome effects.

Now Dr. Lei Yong, a conservator at the Palace Museum in Beijing, has been awarded the prestigious J. S. Lee Memorial Fellowship to collaborate with the Art Institute conservators in research on Chinese pigments like these. He’ll also be focusing on later works of art, primarily 15th century mural paintings as well as architectural conservation. He's brought minute samples of beams from the Palace and is using the Art Institute's sophisticated diagnostic equipment to identify organic materials in pigments and binders. We’ll let you know what he and the crew at the Art Institute uncover…

Chinese, Seated Guanyin, 12th - 13th C. Wood with polychrome pigments. h: 62 1/4 x diameter: 38 1/2 in. Lucy Maud Buckingham Collection, 1923.921.