The Art Doctor

The Language of Art Conservation

When you’re sick, you probably go to the doctor. When paintings are sick, we take them to our conservator! The Art Doctor is a new series exploring the care and conservation of objects in Colby College Museum of Art’s collection, written by conservator Nina Roth-Wells. In this first post, Roth-Wells introduces the practice of conservation and its distinct vocabulary.

Elie Nadelman, Circus Performer, c. 1920-1925. Painted cherrywood, 33 3/4 in. x 8 1/2 in. x 5 1/2 in. (85.73 cm x 21.59 cm x 13.97 cm). The Lunder Collection, 2013.214

Many visitors to the Colby Museum marvel at the works of art on the wall, but may not know all the steps that go into preparing these works for exhibition. Art, like all material objects, ages, leading many works to require some form of intervention to prolong their existence. In their efforts to preserve and restore art, conservators act in a fashion parallel to that of doctors. In fact, the language of conservation shares many similarities with the medical lexicon.

Conservation is a term that refers broadly to the treatment of objects; like medicine, it includes both preventive care and, when necessary, invasive procedures. Art conservation practice today encompasses three main areas: preventive conservation, treatment, and analysis.

Preventive care refers to all activities that prolong the life of a work of art without actually altering the work. These include handling and storing objects properly; controlling temperature, humidity, and other environmental conditions; and limiting exposure to light and harmful chemicals. These are the equivalents of eating right and exercising regularly and can be seen at work in the Museum’s storage areas.


Treatment refers to invasive procedures that alter the work of art. In order to justify an invasive procedure, it must prolong the life of the work of art and cannot compromise its structure or integrity. All materials added during treatment must be reversible and able to be removed at a later date without compromising the work of art. Finally, treatment should follow the artist’s original intent. To continue the medical metaphor, treatment can be understood in relationship to surgery. The detail below of the Museum’s Portrait of a Gentleman from Montague, Massachusetts captures the painting in the midst of a cleaning treatment.

Detail of half-cleaned Portrait of a Gentleman from Montague, Massachusetts. Artist unknown, Portrait of a Gentleman From Montague, Massachusetts, c. 1845. Oil on canvas, 26 1/2 in. x 28 1/2 in. (67.31 cm x 72.39 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ellerton M. Jetté, 1956.021

Finally, analysis involves the scientific examination of a work. Procedures like x-radiography (also a common medical test) and infrared photography are types of imaging and therefore noninvasive. Analysis can, however, have an invasive component, in which small samples are removed from a work and examined with specialized equipment. For example, I recently performed a pigment analysis of Elie Nadelman’s Circus Performer using a scanning electron microscope with x-ray diffraction that is housed in Colby’s Geology Department. The results of this test revealed the specific materials that constituted Nadelman’s paint and will inform future care for this work.

Pigment analysis of Nadelman’s Circus Performer using scanning electron microscope with x-ray diffraction (SEM-EDX) at Colby’s Geology department.

Now that we have a sense of the language of conservation, future posts will cover these topics in depth with examples from the Colby College Museum of Art.