Conserving Norman Rockwell's "United Nations"



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Williamstown Art Conservation Center
The Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) is a multipurpose conservation lab serving over fifty-five institutional members and numerous private clients. Located in Williamstown, Massachusetts, WACC helps its clients preserve and restore a variety of art objects, from paintings and drawings to artifacts and furnishings. Expert conservators at WACC ensure that the objects they treat will be enjoyed for generations to come. -- Photo courtesy of Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

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Restoring Rockwell
WACC has provided conservation treatment for Norman Rockwell Museum collections for over twenty-five years. All of the Norman Rockwell images shown in this video are objects which the Center has helped to restore.

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Norman Rockwell's "United Nations"
In 1953, in his Arlington, Vermont studio, Rockwell began a work that he hoped would capture the spirit of the United Nations. He created a highly finished charcoal sketch, but never felt that the picture fulfilled his intentions, citing that it was “not because I lost faith in the UN, but because I had lost confidence in my ability to express what I had wanted to say in the picture.”

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It's in the details
Norman Rockwell was meticulous in the execution of his artwork; like most artists, he typically began with a rough idea sketch, followed by many different drawing and paint studies. His studies, however, were usually fully worked up versions for his final illustrations; Rockwell worked this way so that he was able to fully understand all of his tonal values and composition details before turning to the final painting. Following the example set by the Great Masters, it was not unusual for Rockwell to come up with over a dozen preliminary renderings for a final work.

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Making the final cut
Norman Rockwell was famous for using his neighbors as models for the many memorable images he created throughout his career; the neighbors became surprise celebrities through their association with the artist's works, however, much like actors in a motion picture, sometimes those who modeled would not make it into the final illustration. Rockwell was known to try out several different models to portray a certain character in one of pictures, in order to see how each would fit into the final composition.

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Handle with care
Williamstown Art Conservation Center's Department of Paper and Photograph Conservation provides consultation and treatment on a wide range of paper-based art and artifacts. These include artworks such as watercolors, pastels and drawings and art prints including lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, silk screens, etc.; historic and contemporary photographs; and cultural ephemera ranging from documents and maps to pop-consumer items.

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Bringing good things to light
Norman Rockwell Museum staff traveled to Williamstown Art Conservation Center on two occasions to film Chief Paper Conservator Leslie Paisley's restoration work on the "United Nations" drawing. Jeremy Clowe, the video's producer, found that the WACC's new Stone Hill Center offered very nice natural light, which helped him achieve the overall look he was seeking for the final exhibition video.

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Conservator profile
Leslie Paisley has been the chief paper conservator at Williamstown Art Conservation Center since 1989. She received her Certificate of Advanced Studies at the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, in 1983. Prior to joining WACC, she was senior paper conservator at the Pacific Regional Art Conservation Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. -- Image credit: WACC Chief Paper Conservator Leslie Paisley, Dr. Sheldon Peck, and the Louvre's Carel van Tuyall during at recent lecture at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Aqua Net, perhaps?
The aqueous treatment of the "United Nations" drawing was made possible due to the large amount of fixative Rockwell applied to the work. The process was undertaken after the lab conducted extensive tests to confirm that the charcoal medium would not be affected by submersion. According to Norman Rockwell Museum curatorial staff, the fixative Rockwell used for the drawing was regular hairspray! And you wondered how his work made such a lasting impression on the public... -- Image credit: "Sport," Norman Rockwell. 1939.

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To protect and conserve
Over the years, many Norman Rockwell Museum collections have benefited from a strong commitment to the care and preservation of collections. Oil paintings, drawings, props that appear in Norman Rockwell's artworks, and the artist's personal possessions have all been conserved under the care of the Museum during the last forty years.

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Conservation timeline
Overall, WACC's process of conserving the "United Nations" drawing took more than 100 hours of work. Here is the conservator's timeline, in full: • Document condition with digital photography • Clean the surface with soft brushes • Remove staples from the perimeter and lift mounted artwork from its plywood base • Separate lined drawing from the paperboard backing • Place drawing facedown on glassine paper and remove residue from the paperboard • Reduce adhesive residues by using organic solvents and poultices as possible

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This video was created for Norman Rockwell Museum's new exhibition "Conserving Norman Rockwell's 'United Nations,'" which examines the process of restoring one of Rockwell's important charcoal studies. Leslie Paisley, Conservator of Paper Department Head at Williamstown Art Conservation Center, takes viewers through the process of treating a fragile work on paper through such means as aqueous water technique-- viewers, don't try this at home!

The exhibition "Conserving Norman Rockwell's 'United Nations'" explore the intricacies of art conservation, from initial evaluation to complete restoration. A step-by-step investigation to the Williamstown Art Conservation Centers methods of conserving Norman Rockwells large-scale symbolic portrayal of the United Nations and the peoples of the world will offer insights into a rarely seen but essential preservation process. On view starting May 2, 2009.

Video produced by Jeremy Clowe. ©2009 Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

Thank you for your very descriptive video...I have had to restore several of my works which had rubber cement as an adhesive with a cardboard back (was done in the 60's)your process verifies what I was trying to do.

I had trouble with yellow discolouration and used ether, alternately with acetone but have concerns about future discolouration. Any suggestions?

Also am not sure how you re-line a work on paper and canvas. I have several large drawings on newsprint which are quite fragile and a few paintings with fragile areas.

Thanks again it was fun to see your process and the integrity of your work<>Dianne Bigelow

Hi Rita,

Thanks for your kind words regarding the video- it was fun to put together.

As far as purchasing original Rockwell lithographs, I would try contacting the Norman Rockwell Museum store: 413.298.4100, ext 224- they sell original artist proofs, which might interest you; they could also direct you to other authentic sources. Best, NRM

how can i learn more about purchasing a real norman lithograph, vs. a fake one? my husband loves norman rockwell work, but we were fooled before paying as much as $1,500 for "the boy 0on stilts" . we were told it was an original lithograph, and learned it was a fake reproduction, thank you, Rita Woidislawsky I ENJOYED THE VIDEO

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