Party Like It’s 1908

Illustration from the 1990s treatment showing all the different support materials for Whistler’s painting. From Wendy Samet, Joyce Hill Stoner, and Richard Wolbers, “Approaching the Cleaning of Whistler’s Peacock Room: Retrieving Surface Interrelationships in ‘Harmony in Blue and Gold,’” Studies in Conservation, 35: sup 1 (1990), 6–12, https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.1990.35.s1.002.

As we write this, the second phase of the Peacock Room conservation project is winding down and installation of the ceramics is underway. Work during the second phase focused on areas of the room painted by James McNeill Whistler, and much of the treatment consisted of cleaning a layer of grime that had accumulated on the surfaces since the last major treatment of the room in the 1990s. Additionally, the large number of visitors to the Peacock Room over the years had resulted in some damage, particularly around the entrance doorway, and these areas were conserved.

The walls of the Peacock Room are made up of several different materials, so there was a lot for us to consider before we started cleaning. Whistler applied paint and gilding to leather, canvas, and wood, and it turned out that each surface needed a different approach. A drawing of the Peacock Room from the 1990s treatment gives a good sense of how the various materials are placed within the room.

Although we had done some initial cleaning tests before we started the project, this was a chance to examine the room more closely and double check our findings. For the most part, the tests this time seemed to be consistent with what we found last spring. Each type of material in the room would need a different approach.

The shutters, their surrounds, and the lowest section of the walls are made from wood, while the middle section is canvas. All of these areas had been varnished to protect the surfaces, most recently during the 1990s treatment. Sometimes simpler is better, and although we tested multiple cleaning methods, cotton wool slightly dampened with water seemed to work best in these areas. However, we don’t just use tap water to clean works of art since it can contain a lot of harmful impurities, so instead we used water purified in deionizing columns.

The shelf spindles also are constructed from wood. Unlike the previous areas, however, the spindles had not been varnished as heavily, and there was some question about whether Whistler might have applied a glaze to the surface of the gilding. In this case, dry cleaning, a technique that didn’t work as well on the other wood areas, seemed to be the most effective approach. We found that small polyurethane sponges worked well to remove grime from the spindles but did not affect the gilding on the surface. These look similar to the cosmetic sponges you can find in a pharmacy, but while cosmetic sponges from the store often contain things that are great for your skin, they are not so great for a work of art. We use a particular type for conservation treatments. At first, we weren’t sure how much grime was coming off, but after one look at the sponges after cleaning, it became very clear!

The upper portions of the walls are embossed leather that, prior to Whistler’s work on the room, was decorated with a floral pattern. Unlike the lower two registers of the room, the leather was not coated during earlier treatments, leaving the surface more fragile. In this case,

cleaning gently with soft brushes turned out to be the best approach. During examination, we noted that a few small areas of the leather were lifting, so we carefully set them down with adhesive to stabilize the areas.

The final part of the conservation project focused on small areas of damage to the surface, mostly around the doorway into the room from the main galleries. Although protected by a railing and gate, the edges of the doorway had been nicked in several places over time by people coming and going. These areas were treated to protect the surface and make the damage less noticeable. Additionally, modifications were made to the gate to help protect the area in the future.

Over the course of the project, we’ve both really enjoyed being able to have a chance to spend time closely looking at the Peacock Room. Although we care for it on an ongoing basis, this is the first time either one of us has really had a chance to spend so much time with it. We have noticed a number of things we hadn’t seen before, and we’re looking forward to investigating them further. Although we have both conserved many works over our years as conservators, the sensation of working in an artwork rather than on it was quite amazing.

During this second phase, we had more of the room to work on in less time, so we were joined by conservators Stephanie Hulman, Anne Kingery-Schwartz, and Kristen Loudermilk, all specialists with expertise in painted surfaces. As a team of conservators, we could collaborate and exchange ideas to develop the best methods for treating the different surfaces. We were also joined by Allison Kelley, who has been with us this year as an intern for her final year in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, and Tamara Dissi, who joined the museum in July as the Gretchen and David Welch Conservator in Training. In addition to preserving the collections of the National Museum of Asian Art, educating future generations of conservators is an integral role of our department, and the Peacock Room project has been a fantastic opportunity to do that.

Ellen Chase and Jenifer Bosworth

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