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The Nelson-Atkins' Art Conservator On What It's Like To Restore An El Greco

Imagine spending a year – or more – restoring an artwork, trying to bring back the touch, or the brushstroke, of a master. That’s what Scott Heffley, senior conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has been doing with an El Greco painting (ca. 1580-1585) called The Penitent Magdalene

Art and science do mix

The artist known as El Greco was born in Greece – but adopted Spain as his home. His paintings include contrasting lights and darks, with a haunting intensity. But conservator Scott Heffley says knowing about the artist and his approach is not something that can be found just in books. It’s visual.

"It’s not reading research, as much it’s looking research," he says. "I’ve known for a long time that these El Grecos were important and that I’d be restoring them and so when I travel around the country and the world, I always make sure to study the El Grecos that I can see."

Heffley’s background combines art and science. His undergraduate degrees are in chemical engineering and studio art. While working as a research chemical engineer for Mobil Oil, he continued to take art classes, painting at night – and learned about the field of conservation, art conservation, that is. And scientific instruments play a large role in the initial examination.

"I look at it with a very good binocular microscope, so it’s seeing it in three dimensions…I look at it with ultraviolet light, which allows me to see restoration on the actual surface of the painting. I look at it with X-rays," he says.

Restoration as a way to reach "the touch of the master"

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has several works by El Greco in its collection, including the painting The Penitent Magdalene. She looks towards the sky, her long blond hair contrasting with her dark robe.

It was painted around 1585 – and last restored in 1949. Part of Heffley’s process includes removing past restoration work to get to the original painting.

"An old master painting like this, we’re really looking for the touch of the master," says Heffley. "So we really want to see as much of that as possible."

This requires cleaning, and carefully scratching off old overpaint, with a microscope and a scalpel. For the Magdalene, this took about 8 months.

"It really takes a lot of staying with it and not being daunted," he says. "But I just really love that. Even though it’s working a millimeter at a time, it’s so rewarding."

Patience rewarded, the thrill of an original painting coming back

Then, Heffley puts a new varnish on it on to saturate the colors and starts to fill the losses, dotting on paint with a very sharp, very fine little brush.

"If you look at say the arm, the flesh of the arm, around the edges it’s darker- and there’s purple, there’s blue," he describes. "You move into the brighter flesh areas, there’s more of a peachy color. I’m mixing just a whole variety of colors."

Heffley says, after three decades at the museum, he walks its halls with a sense of pride and ownership. He’s restored other masterworks, such as Monet’s Water Lilies (1915 - 1926), Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio (1604 - 1605) and Rembrandt's Young Man in a Black Beret (1666).

But he says the two El Grecos he’s spent the last two – or more - years restoring are probably the most challenging. They’re also his favorites, to date.

When conservator Scott Heffley’s restoration of El Greco’s 'The Penitent Magdalene' is complete – that's likely before the end of May – the painting then travels to exhibitions in Toledo, Spain. It’s slated to return to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at the end of 2014.

Laura Spencer is staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and a former arts reporter at KCUR.
Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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