Restoring Ancient ‘Green Lady’ Is a Balancing Act for Curators

Art conservators, like medical doctors, are governed by the principle “First, do no harm,” and they go about their task of preserving art and artifacts using delicacy and caution

But for museum conservators, the boundary between harming and healing a work of art is potentially elusive, according to Lisa Brody, associate curator of ancient art at the Yale University Art Gallery, and Carol Snow, object conservator at the museum.

The complicated balancing act that informs the work of museum professionals was the subject of a Gallery Talk by Brody and Snow, which was presented at the Yale Art Gallery on June 23 in connection with the exhibition “Time Will Tell: Ethics and Choices in Conservation.”

Titled “No Way to Treat a Lady,” the talk focused on a life-sized statue of a Roman woman, a focal point of the exhibition. Now missing a nose and with her handless right arm conspicuously propped up by wooden scaffolding, the statue was used to illustrate some of the inherent complexities of art conservation and to shine a light on the collaborative art of curator and conservator.

Listen to an interview with Lisa Brody and Carol Snow. Audio Netcast »

The statue was acquired by the Yale Art Gallery in December 2007. Arriving in New Haven covered with moss, mildew and lichens — the patina of a life long spent outdoors — the marble figure was quickly dubbed “the Green Lady” by gallery staffers.

Although of Roman antiquity, the history of the statue could be traced on paper back only to 1987, when it was removed from the English country garden where it had resided for decades and sold at auction as an 18th-century English garden ornament. Purchased by a French collector, the statue spent another two decades outdoors, this time near Paris, where chemical and physical attack from urban pollution added to the damage already inflicted by the flora and fauna of the English countryside. Finally identified as an ancient Roman sculpture, the statue was put up for auction once again and bought by Yale curators, who confirmed that it was more likely to be two millennia old than two centuries old.

At Yale, the Green Lady commanded the expertise of art historians, conservators and scientists to determine who she was, where she came from and, most importantly, what had been done previously to “restore” her and when.

“A conservator must have a thorough understanding of the condition of a work of art before actual treatment begins,” said Snow. “In the case of the ‘Green Lady,’ we looked at original tool marks left by her ancient sculptors, damage from burial, and post-excavation effects of the outdoor environment and previous restoration campaigns. Rescuing the sculpture from an accumulation of damaging factors was an important first step in her conservation treatment.”

The statue is the personification of “pudicitia,” or “modesty,” a familiar theme for women during the Roman Empire, explained Brody. Typically, the female figure holds her left arm, draped with a flowing mantle, close to her body; her right forearm is bent inward, with her hand touching or gently grazing the side of her face. Such figures, which would have stood in public settings, now frequently appear in collections of Roman antiquities, said Brody, circulating a picture of a comparable statue owned by the Vatican to an audience of more than 30 art lovers.

Brody, who was an archaeologist before becoming a curator, dates the Hellenistic-style statue to the period between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. Evidence leading to this conclusion, she said, includes the subtlety and quality of the carving, which has deep undercutting, creating realistic shadows among the drapery folds. Another clue to the statue’s authenticity, she noted, is that her back was crudely hewn, lacking the precision and detail of the front and sides. This indicated that the figure was made to stand with her back flush against the wall, on a pedestal, which is customarily how she would have been placed for public view, explained Brody.

Although determining the original date and context of the Green Lady was essential information for the curator and conservator, Brody testified, it was equally as important to understand her recent past, especially evident efforts to restore her to her original state.

Examination of the statue revealed that it had undergone at least two major phases of restorations, some with marble and others with epoxy resin. The most obvious of the marble restorations, noted Brody, is the outstretched right arm, which is out of proportion to her body and in the wrong position for a pudicitia figure. Certain fingers of the left hand, the chin and, probably at one time, the nose were also restored in marble. Iron pins securing these replacement pieces to the body indicate that this first restoration took place in the 18th or early 19th century, said Brody. Ironically, she noted, in order to install the iron pins, the first restorers had to carve away chunks of surrounding marble, thus inflicting permanent damage in order to undo the damage of time.

Another major intervention, consisting of epoxy putty crudely pasted to the intact body, had been undertaken more recently, she said — certainly no earlier than the 1940s, when epoxy first became commercially available. The epoxy was used to patch areas where some of the earlier marble restorations had been lost.

After thorough examination, the sculpture was gently steam-cleaned to remove the green growth of algae and lichens as well as accumulated surface dirt and other debris.

Snow discussed the scientific aspects of the restoration effort, demonstrating some of the tools she borrows from other trades in her work. Among them are x-radiography and the same kind of metal detector wand used in airports to find iron repair pins, a high precision drill for removing insoluble epoxy from the marble surface, and surgical tools and instruments to assist in the removal of disfiguring replacement parts.

With the mantra “reverse, stabilize, preserve” as their guide, Snow and other conservators drew on the historical knowledge of curators to evaluate which of the Green Lady’s previous repairs should be removed and which were worth preserving. Questions about the intent with which the repair was made figured in the deliberation.

At one time, restorers would have been obliged to furnish the Green Lady with a new right arm, whether it was a faithful reproduction of the original or not, to make the whole more “realistic” and credible to public viewers, explained Snow, and a new nose would have been bolted into place to make the beauty of the face visible. In the 19th century, with the prominent display of the armless Venus de Milo at the Louvre changing public sensibilities, the task of the conservator changed too, she noted.

In deciding how to proceed with the statue, Snow, Brody and their colleagues had to weigh each repair individually: Should the right arm be saved? Is a hole in the middle of her face preferable to a false nose? What about the multiple repairs to her neck and drapery possibly the handiwork of an English groundskeeper? None of these decisions was made lightly or unilaterally, said Brody each involved discussion, deliberation, and constant reconsideration until eventually a consensus emerged.

In the end, it was decided that the Green Lady’s massive, 80-pound right arm will be permanently removed, since it is historically inaccurate as well as visually disturbing, said Brody. The marble restorations to her chin and the fingers of her left hand will remain, on the grounds that they are not disfiguring and are part of her historical record. The many repairs to her neck will probably stand, since removing them would pose a significant structural threat. In some places, the 20th-century epoxy that held many of the repairs together will be replaced by a 21st-century acrylic and glass compound and soft lime mortar.

Following her extensive treatment, the Green Lady will remain a prime example of Hellenistic form and grace, say the conservators - and, although she is no longer green, the statue’s nickname may prove even harder to shed than the algae that motivated it.

“Time Will Tell: Ethics and Choices in Conservation” will remain on view through Sept. 6 at the Yale Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St. For more information, visit http://artgallery.yale.edu.

— By Dorie Baker

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Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345