Triage for masterpieces: Preserving medical history through art
On the table is a banged-up World War II soldier.
His left elbow is punctured. His skin is cracked. Something brown and gelatinous is stuck to his back.
The soldier is photographed. His injuries and overall state of health are recorded. A chunk of the “unidentified organic matter,” is scraped off and placed in a numbered glass vial for further analysis.
This checkup lasts an hour and results in a four-page report on the care needed for the 1944 portrait of Arthur Ecker, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon from Upstate Medical University who served in the U.S. Army‘s 52nd General Hospital Unit in England.
The analysis of the Ecker portrait is part of the first-ever art conservators‘ condition survey of Upstate‘s collection of 56 portraits of doctors, deans and scientists. The paintings, which hang throughout Weiskotten Hall and the adjacent downtown hospital, were moved to the Health Sciences Library for this project, under the supervision of Cara Howe, curator of historical collections.
Transporting the collection from Syracuse to an art conservator in Chicago, Boston or Philadelphia would have been cost prohibitive. Fortunately, Howe says, an experienced conservator was found nearby, in Skaneateles.
“Paintings are like people,” says Susan Blakney, chief conservator of West Lake Conservators. “They are born, and then they begin to age. Our goals are to maximize life expectancy.”
Blakney recommends that paintings undergo a survey of their physical condition by a trained conservator every 10 years.
Working much like an emergency physician doing triage, Blakney first assessed all 56 paintings to determine which were in greatest need of treatment, and then developed a plan to care for the entire collection long term. Because they hang in public spaces, the paintings have suffered from changes in humidity and temperature, light, accumulated dirt and, in some cases, insects, water damage, spilled drinks and dents from accidental encounters with passers-by.
The painting of Ecker, a professor in the medical school from 1939 until 1963, was deemed a top priority.
His portrait was created in England during World War II and, because of wartime shortages, was painted on burlap using house paint rather than on canvas with artists‘ paints. The puncture wound on his elbow was one of four holes made by thumbtacks. Paint was flaking around the holes, and water damage led to some buckling. The frame was pressing against the edge of the painting, causing the burlap to fray in spots.
Ecker‘s portrait was reframed with padding, backing board, and removable hardware to prevent further damage.
Blakney and her staff spent a week in the Upstate library, photographing, analyzing and reframing the portraits. Howe says restoration of individual portraits will take place over time.
A varied collection
Upstate‘s art collection is historically significant and valuable in its artistic quality. The individual portraits are of people who shaped health care in Central New York and beyond. The earliest are the 19th-century portraits of Frederick Hyde, MD, the first dean of the college of medicine, and William Plant, MD, a founder of the specialty of pediatrics. The portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell, MD — an 1849 graduate of the medical college and the first female physician in the United States — was painted posthumously and added to the collection in 1963. To view the collection on line, click here.
This article appears in the winter 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine. Hear a radio interview/podcast with Blakney and Howe.