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Insider’s Look: Faye Wrubel


After 36 years with the Art Institute as a paintings conservator, Faye Wrubel retired in January to pursue her private conservation practice. Luckily, before she left, our very own Member Magazine had a chance to sit down with this conservation legend. Below find an excerpt, as well as some additional information for your reading pleasure.

Can you walk us through a day in the life of an art conservator? Is it spent mostly doing research or interacting with art?

There’s no such thing as a typical day. Like most people, I begin my morning reading and answering e-mails. A large part of my responsibility is the examination and treatment of paintings in our collection, but I am also very involved in many aspects of loans and exhibitions. A conservator examines all artwork before it is approved for loan, and in some cases, treatment is necessary before a piece can be lent. Often I accompany a work of art as a courier to make certain it arrives safely and is handled carefully. All artwork coming to the Art Institute for exhibition is also examined by a conservator to ensure that no damage has occurred in transit.

Can you give us a simple explanation between the differences in restoration versus conservation?

Restoration goes back thousands of years and was either self-taught or learned through apprenticeship. In the mid-20th century, a group of art historians, scientists, and restorers collaborated to explore the creation of some kind of formalized training to replace apprenticeship. The idea was that this training would focus not only on repair, but also on preservation of the artwork. It would be accomplished by applying scientific methods such as X-ray to the examination of paintings and developing a clear understanding of the composition of both historic and modern materials. The term conservation is used to differentiate this type of formal professional practice. Still, restoration is an important part of the work we do to repair works of art.

What was the most unexpected discovery you’ve made during a restoration project? 

I was working on a painting from a private collection and removed it from the stretcher so I could work on the back of the canvas. Much to my surprise, I found another complete work by the same artist on a second canvas tacked to the stretcher. My best guess is that the artist temporarily tacked one painting atop the other to use the stretcher and forgot that he did so.

What has been the most rewarding piece in the collection that you've worked on?

My most technically complicated treatment that resulted in the greatest transformation was The Ballet Dancers by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (pictured behind Wrubel in the image above). My work took an entire year to complete. The painting was originally painted on the plaster wall of an inn, and was removed and attached to canvas in the early 1910s. As a result of its less than skillful removal, the painting was extensively damaged and overpainted. During my treatment it was necessary to remove all the yellowed varnish and discolored overpaint before I could restore the many large losses. It was necessary to match not only the color, but also Lautrec's thin original brushstrokes. More details on the treatment are published in the conservation issue of Museum Studies.

In your tenure with the Art Institute, you’ve worked on countless masterpieces by artists such as Caillebotte, Gauguin, Manet, Matisse, and Van Gogh, just to name afew. Is there any piece you wish you could have worked on?

I have been blessed with the opportunity to work on masterpieces from all periods of our collection. However, I have a great affinity for 19th-century paintings and have treated pictures by almost every Impressionist artist—except Degas and Cézanne.

What is your studio atmosphere like while working? Do you like to listen to music? What’s the best light?

Many of my colleagues wear ear buds and listen to music. I generally prefer quiet since the work requires so much concentration, but I occasionally listen to an audio book, preferably one that relates to the artist or time period on which I am working. Natural light is always the best for working on paintings, especially when matching colors. The paintings conservation studio has a large bank of windows facing Millennium Park that provides us with soft north light.

Last fall you traveled to Florence to assist in the installation of Chagall’s White Crucifixion for Pope Francis’s visit. Can you tell us about that moment?

Over the years, I have been a courier overseeing the transport of paintings to most of the world’s great museums, but taking Chagall’s White Crucifixion to the baptistery in Florence was unexpectedly different. The first surprise was entering through the newly polished bronze doors (replicas of the original Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti), which face the Duomo and are never used by the general public. This was a rare privilege! In fact, these were the very doors through which the Pope entered to view our painting. The second memorable moment was at 10:00 a.m. when the Pope arrived in the city. I was in my hotel, and all the church bells in Florence began to peal at once. They continued to ring for some time, and I suddenly realized that this would have been the same sound Michelangelo would have heard in his day.

How can collectors best preserve their artwork?

Try to adopt the same standards that we use in the museum to control fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Extreme changes can cause expansion and contraction of the canvas, wood, paper, or other supports. This, in turn, causes the paint film to crack and creates distortions in the support. At the museum we keep the temperature at approximately 70°F and the relative humidity at 50%. Another potentially damaging element is bright light. Don’t hang a painting across from a window that lets in direct sunlight or over a radiator or across from an air vent. And if a picture does become damaged, don’t try and fix it yourself. Contact a reputable conservator; referrals can be obtained from the American Institute for Conservation in Washington, D.C.

Thanks, Faye!