This is an installment of the weekly interview series, on the Culture Comment blog. It’s called “Behind-the-Scenes.” Each week, we’ll discuss new facts and information about the people that make the Walters Art Museum tick. Now, let’s meet Eric Gordon.
Gary Vikan: What do you do at the Walters?
Eric Gordon: I’m head of painting conservation
GV: What does a conservator do?
EG: I’m the painting doctor. I make sure, along with my excellent staff, that the paintings in the museum’s collection are stable and reflect the intent of the artist, considering the paintings’ age. In other words, we don’t try to make a painting look like it just came off the artist’s easel.
GV: What do you like about being a conservator?
EG: I enjoy working on paintings as more than just materials. I like the creative process. I enjoy history and the artists and I enjoy seeing how all these fit together. I like the detective work and exchanging ideas with other art and museum professionals. Also, it’s great seeing art every day. I’m very lucky.
GV: How did you get involved with conservation?
EG: I discovered conservation during my junior year in Italy. I remember seeing frescos in the streets of Florence and thinking they can’t be the real thing, outside? Wouldn’t they get rained on? When I went to the Uffizzi I saw Michelangelo’s Doni tondo which had just been restored next to an uncleaned Fra Bartolomeo altarpiece and thought, wow, look at the intense colors of the Michelangelo and the murky surface of the altarpiece. I realized that my perception of the paintings was totally influenced by their condition. Then, I met a young woman who was studying painting conservation in Florence and bing! A light went on in my head and I realized, this is what I want to do when I grow up.
GV: What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on at the Walters?
EG: Finding and restoring a lost painting. It was CSI: Walters. George Inness’s The New Jerusalem painted in 1867 disappeared in 1880 when a large tower in Madison Square Garden collapsed onto its exhibit hall, killing 3 people. Michael Quick, an Inness expert who had seen every Inness, thought that he recognized pieces of the painting as described in contemporary reviews in other paintings. He speculated that The New Jerusalem may have been damaged, reworked by the artist and sold as separate paintings and that the Walters’, The Valley of the Olive Trees, bought in 1897, was the largest fragment.
I brought all the existing pieces together to the museum and carried out scientific analysis to see if these paintings were the lost work. Not only did they fit like pieces in a puzzle, but having them together allowed me to restore our own very damaged section. It was a fascinating detective story, and I was able to turn our unexhibitable Inness into a beautiful painting. Kind of an ugly duckling story. The icing on the cake was a video we made on the project for Maryland Public Television.
GV: What projects are you currently working on?
EG: I’m treating a large Venetian, Adam and Eve that’s been in storage along with many, many other untreated paintings. I’ve been eying this painting for years. It was painted around 1600 and probably hasn’t been cleaned since the 19th century when additions were added onto all 4 sides. The varnish was so discolored that it actually looked green, like the painting was under water in a swamp. The additions have been removed, changing the entire composition, and I’m now retouching the paint losses. Big transformation.
GV: When people ask you about your work, what do they most often want to know?
EG: First, I hear, “You must have incredible patience.” I don’t know. When you’re focused on what you’re doing and you enjoy it, you don’t think about patience. Actually I’m a very impatient person (with animate objects). Second, they want to know where I trained and how can someone get into the field. I feel flattered that they think that what I do is interesting. When I went to a high school reunion, someone told me I did the weirdest thing. He owned a truck rental company.