Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 1, Page 3
Fall 1993
The Peacock Room

     Step out of the Metro onto the Mall in Washington, D.C., and you step
straight into the noisy human traffic of polyglot America. Vendors,
vagrants, cops, sweaty joggers, sleek lawyers, lonely lunchers. And, of
course, Washington's huddled masses--tourists. All chaotically varicolored
and out of sync.
     But, step off the Mall into the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery, some 50
yards distant, and you leave the hectic, high noon of rush hour for the
lingering, evening repose of James McNeill Whistler's "Peacock Room."
     "Harmony in Blue and Gold," the expatriate American called it, a
19th-century aesthete's hymn to beauty, sotto voce: muted, solemn, almost
sepulchral, yet dazzling in its artistry. Asked to consult on colors for a
room housing Frederic Leyland's porcelain collection, Whistler--often
likened to a peacock for his posture, his plumage, his pride and his
strange laugh--decked out the room, to his patron's notorious displeasure,
in a shimmering composition of peacocks and peacock motifs.
     And the credit for restoring this quiet creation to its original
conception lies largely with a trio of University of Delaware conservators
working out of an equally splendid retreat at the Winterthur Museum in
Wilmington, Del.
     Joyce Hill Stoner, director of the Department of Art Conservation run
jointly by the University and Winterthur, made her first examination of the
room in 1988. She gave hands-on control of the project to adjunct professor
Wendy Samet. And Samet, employing the ground-breaking techniques of
colleague and biochemist Richard Wolbers, whose custom-designed cleaning
procedures are internationally renowned, set about rediscovering the
interior as Whistler painted it in the 1870s.
     The acclaim has been widespread. "Even other conservators have raved
about it," says Wolbers, "which is pretty rare." "Yes, uniformly good
reviews," adds Samet, referring to a host of articles on their work since
the room opened to the public in May. "It's unusual to get this kind of
publicity," she points out, gesturing to a glossy feature in Vanity Fair
magazine, but as Stoner observes, "The whole world is turning to Whistler
in 1994."
     For Samet, who came to conservation from studio art, the entire
experience, the thousands of hours of painstaking, minutely detailed labor,
was a joy. Her only regret is that Whistler didn't paint more than this one
complete interior. Discovering along the way that she was pregnant made for
some problems with solvents and other toxic chemicals hazardous in the
confined space of the museum, but nothing insuperable, and nothing that
detracted from the pleasure of the task at hand.
     "When you uncover something," reflects Samet, conveying the peculiar
satisfaction of being somehow creative and yet being absolutely humble
before the original artifact, "when you uncover relationships, which in my
opinion are really the subject, it is so exciting."
     Samet faced not only the accretions of time but the accumulated
efforts of at least half a dozen earlier restorers, some of whom,
especially those of the 1940s, were patently misguided. Very gradually, her
understanding of the room matured, so that Whistler's authentic harmonies,
and the dissonances introduced or ignored by earlier treatments, slowly
became apparent. One revelation, for instance, that the ostensibly dark
walnut wainscoting was originally green and gold, quickly revolutionized
perceptions of the underlying color scheme. Linda Merrill, who, as curator
of American art at the Freer, worked closely with Samet, remarked how much
more sense the room and indeed Whistler's oeuvre made given this new (read
old) look.
     Samet and Stoner are keen to salute Wolbers for his high-tech
contribution. Wolbers started out as a biochemist in his native California,
discovered art in his late 20s and came East to combine his twin passions
through the science of art conservation at the University of Delaware,
where the master's degree is one of only three offered in the country.
Since then, he has directed dozens of workshops around the world, sharing
his expertise with conservators from Germany, Britain, Australia, Canada,
Switzerland, Spain and elsewhere.
     In turn, Wolbers is adamant about his debt to the Delaware program.
"The blending of the two fields really happened when I was at the
University of Delaware. I don't think it would have happened if I'd done it
any other way. I consider myself to have professionally grown up in the
department here."
     That department has recently added a Ph.D. program, one of only two
such doctorates in the world. Candidates tend to be practicing
conservators, returning to academia to pursue research expanding the
boundaries of the discipline. Stoner, who came to the program in 1976, is
delighted by the doctoral recruits: "Just having people like that around is
great because it enriches the thinking of the master's students.
Eventually, they'll come up with new approaches and new methods that will
trickle down to the way conservation is taught."
     Perhaps the stature of an advanced qualification-and the funding that
the department is attracting from the Getty and Mellon foundations, and the
new Paul Coremans fellowships-will begin to dispel popular misconceptions
about the art conservator's work. Samet, Stoner and Wolbers concur that one
of the most damaging and discouraging aspects of the art world is the
degree to which conservation is still seen as a kind of hobby, as a
sideline an amateur might successfully pull off.
     The annals of amateur-abused artwork are full of horror stories. The
friendly neighborhood artist who touches up your paintings with retsina and
Italian bread, or raw potato and onion or milk. A nameless professor who
mutilated a painting with Ajax. A Charlottesville connoisseur who employed
a friend to treat his collection with linseed oil, "which turns your canvas
brown and stiff," grimaces Stoner. So, the department runs free
consultation clinics to try and preempt such nightmares and spread the word
about professionalism.
     Future projects are unlikely to be as high profile as the Peacock
Room. The Whistler venture was unusual for its size and complexity, and
conservators generally tend to work on much smaller units. However,
retreating from the limelight won't necessarily bother them. As Samet
points out, it's almost in the nature of a conservator to embrace
invisibility. In practical conservation, the last thing you want to see is
the signature of the conservator.
     Sometimes, this very unobtrusiveness is a problem. In securing arts
funding for example, it's often an asset to make a big splash with a big
name, to do something glaringly noticeable. But, as long as there's enough
backing to keep them working, these people seem content to toil away
quietly on behalf of the art they love, without much in the way of
     Which makes art conservation look very much like an art for art's
                                        -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '94 Ph.D.