Rehousing a Diego Rivera Watercolor

In the summer of 2012, The Phillips Collection received the generous gift of an original Diego Rivera watercolor from Kerry H. Stowell. The watercolor is executed on delicate Japanese paper and depicts a poignant child labor scene. The artwork had become wrinkled in its old matting and frame over time. Whenever a new artwork enters the museum’s collection, the conservator examines its condition. The picture receives treatment when necessary and is rehoused in museum quality materials. In this case, the Rivera picture required removal from an acidic, poor quality backing board and flattening before being hinged into a new mat.

After removing the old paper hinges and flattening the paper, new hinges of Japanese paper are prepared. Since the artwork will be floated in its new mat, the Japanese paper is toned with acrylic paints in order to be less visible. The following photos illustrate eleven steps that were taken to prepare the newly acquired artwork for exhibition at the museum.

Step 1: Hinges are toned to match the original color of the artwork so they will be invisible. Photos: Patricia Favero

Step 1: Hinges are toned to match the original color of the artwork so they will be invisible. Photos: Sylvia Albro

Step 2: Conservation technician, Caroline Hoover, prepares the hinges and wheat starch paste for the new mount

Step 2: Conservation technician, Caroline Hoover, prepares the hinges and wheat starch paste for the new mount

Step 3: Pasting out the Japanese paper hinges with wheat starch paste

Step 3: Pasting out the Japanese paper hinges with wheat starch paste

Step 4: Positioning the hinges at the top edge.  A small mend is visible on the left corner.

Step 4: Positioning the hinges at the top edge. A small mend is visible on the left corner.

Step 5: Blotting the excess moisture from the hinge using an interleaving tissue

Step 5: Blotting the excess moisture from the hinge using an interleaving tissue

Step 6: The hinge dries under blotters and light pressure to minimize distortions

Step 6: The hinge dries under blotters and light pressure to minimize distortions

Step 7: Small hinges are applied to the bottom side edges of the watercolor

Step 7: Small hinges are applied to the bottom side edges of the watercolor

Step 8: The artwork is ready to be put in its new mat

Step 8: The artwork is ready to be put in its new mat

Step 9: Hinges are pulled through slits cut in the backing board

Step 9: Hinges are pulled through slits cut in the backing board

Step 10: The hinges are pasted to the back of the mat board

Step 10: The hinges are pasted to the back of the mat board

Step 11: The dried hinges will securely hold the artwork in place

Step 11: The dried hinges will securely hold the artwork in place

The Phillips Collection's new Diego Rivera watercolor is ready for exhibition

The Phillips Collection’s new Diego Rivera watercolor is ready for exhibition

5 thoughts on “Rehousing a Diego Rivera Watercolor

  1. One of the most important things a museum can do when it acquires a work of some age is to explain the steps in conservation so that the public can actually see what happens in preserving the integrity of a work of art. Good for the museum!

    • Thanks for such a supportive comment, Linda. We’re always happy to present a glimpse of the dedication and talent of our conservators and to illustrate the life of a work of art beyond its time on the gallery wall.

  2. I agree totally with the post of Linda Kaplan. Explanation of what goes on behind the scenes of museums in preparation of works for exhibition and also showing what goes in the making of works of “art” is an important function of museums which is often neglected. The installation of tools and machines which go into the making of prints that was put up by Scip Barnhart for the Jasper Johns exhibit is to be applauded. Having this informative description of the preparation of the Diego Rivera watercolor for exhibition is also a plus. This type of information is being provided at other museums also. I recently was at Kunstbau in Munich where Franz von Stuck’s “Salome” was exhibited and a detailed description of its conservation and the findings of the structure of the painting were posted.

    • Thank you, Maurice. We’ve had some good opportunities in our recent exhibitions to provide insight into the conservation process and the subsequent discoveries. Our Degas show in 2011 had a large conservation component. Angels, Demons and Savages, our current exhibition on Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet, and Alfonso Ossorio, also involved a significant amount of research by our conservators and their colleagues. The resulting essay on the distinctive materials and techniques of all three artists can be found in the exhibition catalog.

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