In 2007, Dianne Dwyer Modestini was restoring a painting that she believed to be a picture of Christ known as Salvator Mundi or “Savior of the World” by the great Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. Ultimately, other experts in the field reinforced her conviction. It was no doubt a major milestone in her highly respected career.
A love of painting, combined with a proclivity to care for people and things, made conservation a natural choice for Modestini. At Barnard she majored in art history; she was fortunate to study with great faculty, including legendary art historian Julius Held. “It was through him that I became interested in conservation,” she says. Held often included information about the actual size and physical state of works of art in his lectures. Modestini later learned that he had trained as a restorer. He introduced her to a paintings conservator who advised her to apply to an institute in Brussels. She discovered they were no longer training novice students. Held then encouraged her to apply to a new conservation-studies group being formed in Cooperstown, New York. Since it was not set to start for another year, she registered at the University of Florence and spent a year in Italy, “learning Italian and soaking up everything I could,” she says. Upon her return, she began the Cooperstown program. She later studied the conservation of wall paintings in Rome with Laura and Paolo Mora, two esteemed Italian restorers.
Today, Modestini works in consultation with public and private collections as well as with dealers and collectors. Salvator Mundi may be her most exciting project thus far, especially since there are only some 15 known surviving paintings by Leonardo. The work was damaged, and Modestini used images of the Mona Lisa for comparison in order to repair it correctly. As she progressed, she came to the realization that the works were by the same artist. She explains more about the master’s depiction of Christ in relation to his other known works, “In each of his surviving paintings, he sets himself a different task which reflects his studies of the natural world. In the Salvator Mundi, he set the most impossible task of all, which was to make a portrait of a divinity.” Giorgio Vasari, an artist who wrote The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550, said that Leonardo did not finish the head of Christ in The Last Supper precisely for this reason. But the Salvator Mundi was certainly done after The Last Supper, and at approximately the same time, circa 1500, that he began the Mona Lisa.
Conservation is a very detailed process filled with carefully made choices about the restoration of a piece. The most important issues have to do with the work’s state; few old master paintings are in pristine condition. From the moment a painting leaves the studio, the materials used to create it begin to alter in different ways. Cleaning a work becomes the basis for everything that happens afterward. Modestini describes how in high contrast paintings, those painted on a dark ground: “The difference between light and darks increases dramatically due to changes that occur over time; the varnish removal needs to take this into account so that the formal values are balanced.” There is also the issue of retouching. In Italy, there is a more conservative approach, while in the U.S., with some exceptions, imitative retouching has been the norm. “The problem with this is to know when to stop. If you take out every crack, spot, and defect, the painting can end up looking like a reproduction,” she says.
And, the same rules cannot be applied to every painting. In the early twentieth-century, when conservators were seeking to further formalize the profession, some tried to make the process more scientific with rules that could be universally applied. But every painting presents different problems: Some are fairly straightforward, others are quite complicated, and many little decisions have to be taken along the way to do what’s best for the work.
Is the goal of the conservator’s work to return a painting to its original state? Modestini says no. “We try to understand as well as we can the materials that were used to make a painting, partly to be able to imagine what the work might have looked like 500 years ago,” she says. “The best we can do is to maintain harmony among the elements that have gone out of sync so that the formal values—shape, perspective, volume, hues, transitions—are in keeping with one another.”
Technological advances have also changed the conservator’s work. The use of imaging with infrared wavelengths has been revolutionary in revealing the layers of paintings, enabling us to see underdrawings and changes the artist, or others, made to the piece. Work at the National Gallery in London on pigments and binders (the substances that bind the paint and cause it to adhere to a surface) have helped to understand paintings and the original intentions of artists.
Understanding the process and purpose in creating a work is the result of hours of the conservator’s study and skills and can last weeks, months, even years. Modestini acknowledged the close relationship that exists between a conservator and a work of art. “I have experienced this with the Salvator Mundi,” she says. “It has, in some ways, changed my life.”
Whether for a casual stroll or a required class, many a Barnard student has found herself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, delighting in the wonders of one of our nation’s preeminent cultural treasures. Some are lucky enough to find careers there as did Nadine Orenstein. In what started as an internship nearly two decades ago, Orenstein, now a curator in the department of drawings and prints, continues to bring her passion and expertise to do research, create exhibitions, and care for a collection she loves. She is a specialist in northern European prints—Dutch, Flemish, and German—most notably the works of Rembrandt.
Orenstein grew up in New York City, where she was exposed to myriad artistic and cultural experiences, and where she made many visits to the Met. Since her father is French, she often took trips to Europe with her family and enjoyed seeing castles and museums. In high school, she majored in art, and, later, majored in art history at Barnard. On the heels of graduation Orenstein enrolled at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. While obtaining her PhD she participated in a curatorial studies program run by the institute at the Met, enhancing her knowledge in Dutch prints. She later completed an internship, traveling to the Netherlands for dissertation research. Orenstein’s first full-time job was in the museum’s Print Study Room. Later, she became a curatorial assistant, which eventually led to a curator position. From an early age, Orenstein liked the idea of what curators did. “I thought they had wine and cheese parties and got to travel,” she laughs.
But exhibition receptions and accompanying artworks around the globe are just part of the job. Curators also build collections through buying works at auction and cultivating potential donors, which also helps raise money. Orenstein lectures and gives tours at the museum. She also teaches on the side. “Every day is something different,” she says. “One day you could be talking to the director of the museum, the next day you could be talking to a truck driver while supervising a delivery.” Research on the collection is of prime importance, as it forms the basis of many exhibits, but also allows Orenstein to develop her scholarship; she’s on the editorial board of Print Quarterly, the journal of her field.
Her latest project at the Met is “Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine,” on view until March 4, 2012. Orenstein explained the curatorial process using the exhibit as a case study. “It’s about a four-year process,” she begins. It starts with an idea, and in this case, Orenstein’s colleague. Associate Curator Constance McPhee, who works on British caricature, suggested they mine the Met’s plentiful holdings of such artists as Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray. Orenstein explored French caricature and other nationalities. She describes the intentions and theme of the show: “Instead of a chronological march through time, we wanted to show continuity in how caricaturists knew their subjects and understood past traditions. We wanted to show the artistry and the approaches they used.” Orenstein and McPhee tried to choose works that were comprehensible and funny even if viewers did not know the stories behind them.
The challenge? A lot of the material had not been researched well; both curators found themselves doing a great deal of it, with catalogue text submitted a year in advance of the opening. She and McPhee wanted to do something unique and more substantial than a lot of other museums that were doing caricature shows in the same period. The shows can be attributed in part to the economy: Museums like to exhibit works they already own, due to the costs of receiving artworks on loan, which can be quite expensive. “Caricature is something many museums have lots of, and the works are easy to exhibit,” she explains.
Seeing how it all fits in the gallery and how all the pieces interact on the walls is the “fun part” according to Orenstein. The exhibition is divided into four sections, beginning with an exploration of the building blocks of caricature. In a classic sense, caricatures (derived from the Italian carico and caricare, “to load” and “to exaggerate”) are generally thought of as images that distort faces and physiques, and when combined with satire, make personal, political, or social statements. The show’s second section consists of social satire, which experienced a golden age in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France and Britain. The third area focuses on politics while the last group of images relate to notable people from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries.
The show has been popular (Orenstein says some people have spent two hours in the galleries), in keeping with previous special exhibitions of the same media. “There is a sizeable audience and a misconception that people don’t want to make the effort to look at things done in black-and-white,” she observes. She thinks prints and drawings require a different kind of looking, one that stems from the personal and gets people to look up close to think about the details and the story behind what they are seeing.
The images in the exhibition represent only a fraction of the more than 1.2 million works that make up the Metropolitan’s drawings and prints collection, whose history began in the early twentieth century. Orenstein clarifies, “When it was created, anything printed was considered part of the history of print-making. It started as a collection of prints and photographs.” What the public might not know is that the museum also holds other types of print material, from baseball cards to eighteenth-century Valentines. Because these images are sensitive to light and humidity, works are constantly rotated in the galleries. What is not on view can be examined in the drawings and prints study room by appointment. What is the best part of being a curator at one of the world’s best museums? “You get a big machine behind you to put on the shows,” responds Orenstein. She cited the support she gets from the Met’s excellent editorial and design departments. She works with museum educators to create public programs and tours. Colleagues at other institutions have to do most things themselves, while Met curators like Orenstein are able to focus more on the catalogue and putting together the exhibition; “If you do even a small show, a lot of people are involved in it, and a lot of people see it. It’s the great part of working at the Met. The staff here brings very high standards [to the exhibitions].”
—by Stephanie Shestakow ’98