One of the first steps of any conservation treatment is to closely examine the object, creating written and photographic records of its current state. Conservators do this using a variety of tools and methods. I started to examine King Caspar by looking closely under normal light. Then, I began to change the angle and intensity of light, eventually adding magnification (via a stereomicroscope). I also examined the sculpture under ultraviolet illumination to observe UV-induced fluorescence. Some artists’ materials exhibit characteristic fluorescence when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, so looking at an object under UV can provide hints about the composition of pigments, binders, or varnishes that may be present. For example, the orange-ish fluorescence of Caspar’s cloak suggests the presence of a shellac topcoat. UV can also distinguish areas that have been previously repaired or restored in the past.
Finally, I x-rayed the sculpture. X-radiography is an analytical technique that allows the visualization of materials within a structure. Materials comprised of low atomic weight elements (like our skin or wood) allow x-rays to pass through easily and appear dark in the grey-scale image, while those of higher atomic weight (like our bones or metal) appear white. The x-radiograph of King Caspar revealed details of the construction and helped me to identify structurally weak areas.
This combination of examination techniques revealed intricacies of the surface and structure that are not readily apparent to the casual observer and helped me to answer some critical questions prior to designing a conservation treatment plan: What is the sculpture made of? How is it put together? Can it be safely handled, or is it structurally unstable? Where are the weak spots? Has it been repaired before?
For some objects, the answers to these questions are straightforward. For others, like King Caspar, they are quite complex.
I learned that the sculpture is formed from nine pieces of wood that are joined together using a variety of methods as can be seen in the x-ray below. Wooden pieces are covered with white ground (preparatory) layers, gold and silver gilding, and layers of opaque and translucent paint. Caspar’s ermine-patterned collar and light blue veil are actually made of fabric that is covered with a ground layer and painted. The cloak, which is particularly luminous and beautiful, is achieved by layering colored glazes atop silver leaf. The technique is called barniz chinesco, or Chinese varnish, and is often found on viceregal Ecuadorian sculptures.
Throughout my examination it became clear that many of the original surfaces were repainted and that some parts (like a portion of the crown) had been repaired or replaced over time. Because the sculpture depicts a holy figure, the quality of its surface played an essential role in its function as a devotional object. As the sculpture was used and began to show signs of wear, it is logical that it would have been refinished.
In addition, examination revealed that several of the wooden joints were loose, four fingers were broken and missing, and there were multiple losses to the paint, gilding, and preparatory layers. Images of these condition issues can be seen in the slideshow below. In short, I found that the condition of the sculpture was poor and that conservation treatment was needed.
Curator Donna Pierce and I worked together to design a two-part conservation treatment plan. First, I would restore the structural stability of the sculpture so that it could be handled, studied, and displayed safely. Because evidence of repair is integral to the history and significance of the sculpture, we opted to accept the authenticity of later additions and paint layers as long as they did not interfere with the structural integrity. Then, I would pursue aesthetic compensation for surface losses so that King Caspar could be effectively understood and interpreted as a devotional object.
Headline image credit: Sculpture of a Man (King Caspar), c. mid-eighteenth century, Ecuador. Polychrome wood. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family, S-0360.