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Restoring a Masterpiece

Scott Heffley, senior conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, furrows his brow between brush strokes. Photo credit: Julie Denesha, KCUR.
Scott Heffley, senior conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, furrows his brow between brush strokes. Photo credit: Julie Denesha, KCUR.

Nelson-Atkins Art Conservator on renewing an El Greco

Imagine spending a year – or more – trying to bring back the touch, or the brushstroke, of a master. That’s what Scott Heffley, senior conservator of paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has been doing with an El Greco painting (ca. 1580-1585) called The Penitent Magdalene.

The artist known as El Greco was born in Greece, but adopted Spain as his home. His paintings include contrasting lights and darks, with a haunting intensity. But Heffley says knowing about the artist and his approach is not something that can be found just in books. It’s visual.

“It’s not reading research, as much it’s looking research,” he says. “I’ve known for a long time that these El Grecos were important and that I’d be restoring them, and so when I travel around the country and the world, I always make sure to study the El Grecos.”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has several works by El Greco in its collection, including The Penitent Magdalene. She looks towards the sky, her long blond hair contrasting with her dark robe.

It was painted around 1585, and last restored in 1949. Part of Heffley’s process includes removing past restoration work to get to the original painting.

“An old master painting like this, we’re really looking for the touch of the master,” says Heffley. “So we really want to see as much of that as possible.”

This requires cleaning, and carefully scratching off old overpaint, with a microscope and a scalpel. For the Magdalene, this took about 8 months.

“It really takes a lot of staying with it and not being daunted,” he says. “But I just really love that. Even though it’s working a millimeter at a time, it’s so rewarding.”

Read the full story on KCUR-FM’s website.

KCUR-FM is a service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.


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