French Methods of Art Conservation

Researchers of the Classical art and Medieval art are often confronted with anonymous works of art, for which they have almost no information. Such works of art are known as orphans.

Research in the History of Art

Researchers of the Classical art and Medieval art are often confronted with anonymous works of art, for which they have almost no information. Such works of art are known as orphans. The first element of identification for such works is stylistic analysis. Thanks to the study of forms and their evolution, it is a question of distinguishing among the stylistics features (e.g., the form of an eye, the treatment of hair, the representation of movement or depth...) which can be identified with one time, with an region, or with an artistic tradition or a specific artist. This was the method of Giovanni Morelli at the end of the 19th century. Comparing the style of an anonymous work with better documented works of art or works of a comparable nature was used to locate it more precisely.

The knowledge of the historical context - political, economic and social - is very useful to understand the order and iconography of a work which has a public place or function. The scientific analyses carried out by restorers before any intervention provides information on the technique, the structure and the manufacturing process of the work of art which can confirm or refute an assumption of attribution or dating.

The restoration itself often requires several years of work, in addition to the research required to prepare for the intervention.

To a greater or lesser degree, these are the same for the different types of objects that make up a museum's collections. The first stage, often long and tedious, consists of reviewing the physical condition of the permanent collections, often during an inventory. Based on this review, reports are drawn up by restorers indicating the precise extent and nature of any deterioration suffered by the works.

The decision to intervene and the nature of the intervention are determined according to several criteria:

  • A risk assessment, from the point of view of preservation, of leaving the work in its current state
  • Conditions for preserving the work in the future
  • The importance of the work to the museum
  • An assessment of potential improvement to the state of preservation and presentation of the work that could be achieved by an intervention, in terms of health and the way in which the work could be perceived.

Once the decision to intervene is taken, the museum issues an invitation to tender, on the basis of detailed proposals which are examined and classified according to the quality and relevance of the intervention proposed and the cost.

In order to intervene on works in French museums, restorers must be experienced, with recognized qualifications or accredited skills acquired in the practice of their craft. The museum's choice is then discussed and debated by a regional scientific commission.

Principles and methods of art restoration in France

Any restoration work on collections in France is guided by concern for improving the conservation and presentation conditions of a work of art for the future generations. Such work is always carried out with respect of the original work of art, preserving all evidence of its history. This requires multiple partners. The restorers have the task of studying and executing the restoration itself. The trade of art restoration as taught at approved institutes includes multiple facets: exact physicochemical knowledge of the techniques employed, manual skill, sensitivity, and thorough knowledge in history of art.

From the Secret Polychrome website.

The restorer of works of art is located at the interface between the work of art itself, the curators of a museum and the scientists who work within specialized laboratories such as the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France (C2RMF), which in turn is under the Direction des Musées de France, a division of the French Ministry of Culture. The scientists of C2RMF, using technologies profiting from advanced scientific research, can analyze all the facets of the work of art in order to identify all the constitutive materials. This step of the study, a precondition to the restoration work itself, determines what form of intervention the restorer should follow. The proposal for an intervention is discussed by commissions made up of conservators, academics and scientists from the C2RMF in order to assist the museum in the difficult choices.

A regional restoration scientific commission for the museums of France, instituted by the law of January 4, 2002, approves the last stages of these restoration plans. Only after this approval does the lengthy and patient work of physical restoration begin, carried out in close cooperation with the museum conservators. The cost of this often very expensive work is shared by the town on which the museum depends, with the participation of the Direction des Musées de France.

In certain cases, the museum profits from the assistance of private foundations which donate to the annual budget for the restoration of masterpieces of the museums of France.