The Nation's Art Sleuth

Tiarna Doherty, J97, chief of art conservation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, ferrets out masterpieces' secrets
Tiarna Doherty
“Fundamentally, that’s what conserving is all about—understanding how something was made and making sure you conserve it in that state,” says Tiarna Doherty. Photo: Conor Doherty
February 18, 2014

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A mix of humanity milled about on the circular floor of the grandest space in the nation’s most imposing building. One hundred and eighty feet overhead, George Washington looked down from the domed ceiling of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, as if surveying the crowd of tourists and federal employees. On this particular morning in early 2013, two pairs of eyes returned his gaze.

Seated on a bench at the periphery of the Rotunda were Tiarna Doherty, J97, the chief of art conservation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Barbara Wolanin, curator of the Capitol, their heads tipped at an oblique angle, considering the giant fresco. Its artist, the Italian-born Constantino Brumidi, had painted Apotheosis of George Washington over an 11-month period in 1864 and 1865. He created it section by section, applying his paints, as Wolanin pointed out, to a wet plaster surface, in true fresco fashion. At the end of the Civil War, when the scaffolding came down, Brumidi revealed to the reunited nation a skyward image of its Founding Father ascending into heaven.

The Capitol fresco. Photo: Courtesy of Architects of the Capitol“He actually worked on his ideas for years,” Wolanin observed. Doherty nodded, only too aware of the long, painterly journey Brumidi took to the immense fresco at the Capitol, a route she was trying to retrace. At that moment, she was mentally comparing what she saw to another, much smaller painting that sat on an easel in her studio.

The oil canvas—also by Brumidi, a variation of the big fresco on the canopy—presented something of a mystery. Was it a study? A copy of the finished work? Finding out was all part of her job.

Some people live in glass houses, but Tiarna (pronounced Teerna) Doherty works in a glass office. Nestled into the attic space of the former U.S. Patent Office—the immense building that houses both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery—the Lunder Conservation Center is the first permanent conservation facility to permit the public a behind-the-scenes view of preservation in progress.

Walled off by floor-to-ceiling glass, Doherty and her team of six conservators and a similar number of interns analyze and restore paintings, frames, works of art on paper and three-dimensional objects in five studios and labs. Museum-goers might see one conservator regilding a great decorative frame, another peering at a delicate drawing through a microscope on a giant arm or Doherty herself—as was the case last winter—daubing the painted surface of the Brumidi canvas with a damp Q-tip.

“There is a component to our work that’s sort of 'CSI,'” says Tiarna Doherty. Photo: Conor Doherty “There is a component to our work that’s sort of CSI,” Doherty told me, referring to the TV series where highly trained investigators “process” a crime scene. As recently as the 1950s, the conservator was typically an artist who would moonlight as a restorer, touching up an old painting to replace missing pigment. Not any more. Twenty-first-century conservation is a discipline in its own right, one that, as Doherty explained, resembles a three-legged stool. “You have to know your chemistry, your art history—and have the hand skills of an artist.”

The modern conservator’s goal is to preserve cultural material (be it a painting, a structure like Jefferson’s Monticello, a piece of Victorian jewelry with a precious lock of hair, an immigrant’s diary or a snapshot of Eleanor Roosevelt). But the intervention is always preceded by close physical examination. “Fundamentally,” Doherty said, “that’s what conserving is all about—understanding how something was made and making sure you conserve it in that state.”

In the case of a painting, the conservator will study the work closely under normal illumination (at the Lunder, large skylights supply abundant natural light). Next, ultraviolet or raking (angled) light sources may show up loose or cracking paint or previous restorations. Photomicrographs reveal tiny details.

Conservators can look beneath the object’s surface, too, with technologies like x-ray, infrared reflectography and multispectral imaging. If the artist changed his or her mind in creating a work, such tools can reveal generations of earlier sketches beneath the finished surface. They have helped identify the original colors of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and ink inscriptions in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Paint chemistry plays a role as well. “We’re always analyzing tiny paint samples,” said Doherty. Knowledge of the paint bases as well as the pigments used is essential to determining not only what the work looked like originally but which solvents and solutions should be used in conserving it.

Everything is documented. Photographs record texture, color, and condition. The conservator writes a detailed description of the work. If the artist is alive, the conservator may interview him or her. The accumulated documentation becomes a dossier, part of the work’s permanent record, an invaluable reference for future curators and conservators.

It was this set of techniques that Doherty brought to the task of conserving Brumidi’s vision of General Washington seated amid the clouds.

For a century and a half, the smaller Apotheosis remained in private hands. At the artist’s death, in 1880, a son inherited the work. In 1919, the circular canvas first appeared on the auction block, selling for $300. After decades spent in various homes and a Virginia teahouse—during which it was reinforced with a new fabric lining and remounted on its wooden stretcher—the canvas came up at auction at Skinner, Inc., in Boston. In March 2012, Lot 260 sold for $539,500. With the pounding of the gavel, the painting entered the public domain, purchased by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for the nation.

The museum planned to exhibit the work, but certain imperfections had to be corrected first (the auction catalog noted “professionally executed small spots of retouch . . . with a few larger areas of inpainting,” or filling in of gaps). Enter Tiarna Doherty. Before she addressed the painting’s condition, though, she needed to know a great deal more, starting with the work’s history.

Despite being 1-20th the diameter of the Capitol fresco, the canvas bore a marked resemblance to its big brother. For reasons that were not immediately apparent, it also differed in significant ways. This necessitated a trip to the Athenaeum of Philadelphia to see yet another version, one that had belonged to Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect charged with completing the Capitol dome (Walter is said to have hung this small-scale Apotheosis over his bed in the years after the Civil War). In the Walter version, Doherty found, Washington stands at center, with worthies of his time flanking him and an eagle overhead. In the full-sized fresco, the other Founding Fathers and the eagle are nowhere to be seen.

Such differences raised the question of where in the sequence the Smithsonian’s painting fits. Most likely, Doherty thought, theirs was the last study, though it could also have been a record the artist made of the finished dome. Even Barbara Wolanin, who has been the Capitol’s curator since 1985 and is the author of Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol, wasn’t certain.

In trying to figure out the sequence, Doherty returned to the Capitol, this time walking the balcony high above the floor of the Rotunda. She found herself pondering a pictorial problem that Brumidi faced—namely, how to create a work that could be viewed from far below yet remain persuasive from quite different sightlines, including the one from which she viewed it. The difference in media—oil on canvas versus fresco—raised questions, too. “He can achieve more subtle effects with oils than when painting directly on plaster with earth pigments,” Doherty explained. The effect of the latter reminded her of theatrical makeup. “It’s as if he reinforced their facial features to make them easier to read from a distance,” she said.

Yet Doherty still didn’t know for sure whether the Smithsonian’s oil came before or after the fresco.

The solution to the puzzle came when the x-ray imaging revealed pentimenti, or paint layers below the visible surface. The finding confirmed that the artist had made many changes. One layer depicted the first president at the center point, just as in the Walter version of the painting. But the x-ray also showed that Brumidi later shifted the general’s place in the work. The artist, Doherty realized, must have recognized that positioning Washington at the apex of the dome would appear awkward from some sightlines. Bolstering this explanation, the x-rays made it clear that Brumidi had adjusted the positions of the angels for better viewing from the floor of the Rotunda.

With this evidence in hand, Doherty concluded that the Smithsonian canvas was Brumidi’s final study, the essential last step before he clambered up the scaffolding to paint the ceiling. “Our painting is this wonderful moment when he’s making final decisions as to how the fresco will be executed,” Doherty said. Barbara Wolanin, who had spent decades looking up at Apotheosis, told me she was delighted with Doherty’s findings. “Seeing those details is amazing,” she said. “Tiarna was able to answer so many questions I’d always had about Brumidi’s changes.”

Doherty has since completed the conservation of the painting, removing old varnish and discolored restorations from 40 years ago. After applying a new varnish to saturate the colors, she retouched the painting in a few places, then added a final varnish. Today the painting hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 19th-century gallery. There, according to Elizabeth Broun, the museum’s director, “it helps tell the story of America.”

In a Glance

At just 38, Doherty occupies one of the premier jobs in her field, at the nation’s oldest art museum. That’s partly because of the single-minded devotion with which she has pursued art conservation since her childhood days in Sherborn, Massachusetts. “I’m one of those rare people who decided at 15 what I wanted to do in life,” she said.

Doherty remembers the moment she knew. Her mother was recounting a detective story about an art forgery, and Tiarna was captivated. “It involved painting”—her favorite childhood avocation—“and it was a mystery,” she said.

She pursued a double major in art history and chemistry at Tufts (something of a family affair, as her father, Professor Robert Doherty, taught for decades at the School of Dental Medicine, and her two siblings earned degrees on the Hill). Museum internships in Dublin and Florence followed. Then came a master’s from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.

In her first long-term professional post, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, it became apparent that her drive to succeed in the profession was matched by extraordinary ability. As she rose from intern to associate conservator of paintings, her former supervisor Mark Leonard recalled, “she built bridges through training and workshops, and she brought her creative foresight to the job.” She helped develop new cleaning systems for modern and contemporary paintings, and published widely.

Along the way, she applied her skills to paintings at the Getty and from international collections. Restoring a Van Gogh, with its thick swirls of pigment, was “like working on the top of a cake,” she recalled. A Getty exhibition on Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder led to trips to the Netherlands, Germany and France to analyze works by the two Antwerp masters. An article she co-wrote with Leonard offered new insight into the Rubens-Brueghel collaboration.

By 2011, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum summoned her to D.C., Doherty was ready to run her own department. “We wanted someone who could give us a bigger, broader public presence,” remembered Broun, the director. Doherty is the opposite of the studio-bound craftsman. She likes nothing better than flying to the United Kingdom to consult on a painting or to Indianapolis to chair a panel for the American Institute of Conservators. She’s a visible presence in the field, a balance of the guarded and the voluble, a private person in a public job who brings a welcome mix of caution, intelligence and passion for art.

In modern museums, the definition of art has long since broadened from traditional painting and sculpture to include media unimagined when Constantino Brumidi mixed his pigments. One day at the Smithsonian, Doherty pointed to a work by Teresita Fernández, a New York artist and MacArthur genius grant recipient born in 1968. The rectangular 12-foot-wide Nocturnal (Horizon Line) consists of black-on-black bands. It’s an abstracted landscape with a peaceful darkened sky, its textures seemingly about to come to life. The artist used a special graphite paint that she developed with a paint manufacturer. It’s a material that can be burnished, tooled and otherwise manipulated.

Modern art gets special consideration. “Horizon Line” was left uncovered to preserve it touchable look. Photo: Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum“People are so mesmerized by Horizon Line that they’re dying to touch it,” Doherty said. “And they do.” As if that weren’t bad enough, some of the graphite invariably comes off on their hands. Standing before the painting, the five-foot-10-inch Doherty swept her arm with the easy athleticism of a long-time rower and hiker and said, “Then they wipe their hands on the walls.”

Should the work be encased in some protective cover? Doherty and a curator talked to Fernández, and the three agreed that public access to the work was paramount. While touching must be discouraged, covering the work or keeping viewers at a distance would serve neither the art nor the artist. An unprotected Nocturnal (Horizon Line) remains on view.

“Electronic Superhighway” is maintained with scavenged parts. Photo: Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art MuseumNot all the conservation efforts concern traditional, static works of art. Consider the creations of the late Nam June Paik, whose vast archive the museum acquired in 2009. His Electronic Superhighway, which stands 15 feet high and 40 wide, consists of perhaps a hundred video screens, all alive with different images, arranged within a neon network that limns the map of the United States. The enormous work, with its 51-channel video installation and sound system, poses a special conservation challenge. For the conservators, the question is, How are we to keep outmoded technologies in working order? Just finding replacement parts is daunting. Yet for Doherty, the challenge is part of the joy. In preparing for a recent exhibition, she discovered that some pieces had parts missing. She tried to think like the Korean-born artist, who, as she put it, “repurposed much of his work.” Using his practice as a guide, Doherty and her team scavenged parts from some of the 10,000 contraptions in the Paik archive.

Much as she enjoys conserving art that incorporates aging electronics, cardboard, fur or even more fugitive materials, however, her true passion is still working with paintings. “What’s fascinating is that we have paintings coming across our easels that are hundreds of years old. We’re guided by reversibility—we use water-base materials so if, in the future, someone finds we painted the eyes the wrong color, that can be fixed—and by research and science.”

The complexity of the process—the historical research, the technical analysis, the judicious decision making—holds great appeal to someone like Doherty. But everything she does is guided by a simple principle, she said: “Our goal is to have the art last forever.”

This article first appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Hugh Howard, A74, is a historian and the author of many books, including Houses of the Presidents.

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