Conservation of Mary Blumenschein’s Self Portrait


Museum-standard conservation of the National Academy collection is essential.  The Conservation Department, established in 1985, is responsible for the care and preservation of the collection of paintings, works of art on paper and sculpture of the Academy.  The Chief Conservator, Lucie Kinsolving, carries out conservation of paintings which have been selected for in-house exhibition, for loan or on paintings determined to be highly unstable.  Works of art on paper and sculpture are treated by paper and objects conservators respectively, who are in private practice.  The Conservation Department plays an active role with the Curatorial Department and the Registrar’s Department in the installation and de-installation of exhibitions.

In preparation for the exhibition Her Own Style: An Artist’s Eye with Judith Shea, a number of paintings from the collection required treatment.  The most transformative of these treatments was that of Mary Blumenschein’s Self Portrait painted in 1915.

A native of New York City, Blumenschein studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in Paris at the atelier of Raphael Collin. She went on to a successful career as a painter of portraits and figurative composition, and also as a magazine and book illustrator.  Blumenschein’s work was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1902, and a silver medal at the Louisianna Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904.  She was elected as an Academician in 1913.

Blumenschein’s Self Portrait had a severely deteriorated varnish film on its surface.  The varnish film had yellowed and obscured the original tones of the entire painting.  In addition, the varnish had blanched in several areas, due to exposure to moisture.  The blanching created a whitish haze, which was particularly pronounced over the left background, the sitter’s dress, the tulle of the hat, and the fur of the stole, thus obscuring these areas of the painting.

The removal of the varnish film revealed the original palette of the painting and made it possible to view the different textures and fabrics of the sitter’s glamorous ensemble.  A fresh varnish was applied to the painting to saturate it and to achieve a surface appropriate to the original period of the painting.