Whistler and watercolor project

Combining the methods of art history and conservation science, this study focuses on the more than 50 watercolors by James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) in the Freer Gallery of Art. These works—the world’s largest collection of Whistler watercolors—are part of the Freer’s larger collection of Whistler’s art, including oils, prints, drawings, and copper etching plates. Technical studies have analyzed Whistler’s oil paintings, prints, and pastels, but no such studies exist on his watercolor practice.

Collaboration with Lee Glazer, associate curator of American art, and Blythe McCarthy, senior scientist in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, will allow us to synthesize a technical examination and analysis of Whistler’s paper, pigments, and techniques with a comprehensive survey of the watercolors’ exhibition and reception in Britain and the United States. It will illuminate how Whistler worked with the medium and establish a baseline of information to which other collections of his watercolors can be compared.

Approximately half of the Whistler watercolors already have been examined visually and microscopically; the remainder will be similarly examined during this project. This investigation will determine the types of paper used, identify paper composition and color, locate watermarks, and note inscriptions and notations. We will add information to an existing database on papers used by Whistler in his etchings, lithographs, and drawings, compiled by Martha Smith, former Freer paper conservator (see below).

Visible working practices such as sanding, blotting, or scraping the paper and paint to achieve a desired appearance will be photographed and described to help scholars, curators, and conservators recognize them in related works. A methodology using recently acquired computed radiography will be developed to reveal watermarks that cannot otherwise be seen. The watercolors also will be photographed using ultraviolet and infrared reflectography, which can be used to refine pigment identification and reveal working drawings beneath layers of paint.

Islamic collection survey

Colorful and intricately painted page from Falnama (Book of Omens)
Detail, folio from the Falnama (Book of Omens), The Angel of Death Slays Shaddard, Safavid period, mid-1550s–early 1560s, S1986.253.

Paper Conservation is undertaking a survey of the Islamic art-on-paper collections to assess their condition and identify potential treatment and housing issues. Such surveys help define discrete conservation projects that can be undertaken by staff, interns, volunteers, or contractors. Additionally, the project is focusing on the Islamic papers themselves, looking at such factors as thickness and pulp quality to gain insights on regional or stylistic differences.

Japanese works-on-paper project

Woodblock print: Behind silhouetted trees, smooth water reflects a crescent moon sky and a glowing city across the water.
Detail, Shoreline in Moonlight, by Kawase Hasui, S2003.8.547.

The Robert O. Muller Collection consists of more than 4,500 Japanese woodblock prints, representing 240 artists, and is one of the world’s finest collections of Japanese prints from the late 1860s through the 1940s. The prints came to the museum in high-quality mats; however, many of them were stuck to the mats with random applications of adhesive or pressure-sensitive tapes. To properly house them and allow for digitization, we treated and detached the 270 prints that were stuck in their mats. The treatment included physically separating the print from the mat using a scalpel, followed by removing paper and adhesive residues from the verso (or back). Finally, all of the Muller collection woodblock prints were rehoused in unbuffered storage folders. Japanese prints are one of the only subsets of paper-based materials that require unbuffered folders, due to the sensitivity of some colorants to the high pH (alkalinity) of buffered materials.

Whistler collection survey

Etching, and tiled doorway.
Etching by James McNeill Whistler titled Doorway and Vine, and radiograph revealing the Posthorn watermark.

Although best known for his paintings, the expatriate American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) is also widely acknowledged as the greatest printmaker since the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). The Freer Gallery of Art has the largest collection of Whistler prints in North America. A comprehensive survey of Whistler’s art on paper was undertaken to examine and document condition, media, watermarks, signatures, inscriptions, type of paper and pulp characteristics, and ink color. Radiographs were taken of all of the watermarks found.