Today’s post comes from Julie MacDonald, Class of 2012 and Art Center Student Docent.

Saint Jerome in his Study is one of the most prominent items in the collection here at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, not only as favorite amongst visitors but recently as the feature of an interdisciplinary Kaleidoscope discussion. Saint Jerome is a wonderful example of 16th century Flemish painting, rife with symbolic allusions and meticulous attention to detail.

Saint Jerome in his Study, ca. 1530 Circle of Joos van Cleve Tempera and oil on panel Purchase, Friends of the Vassar College Art Gallery Fund, 1985.20

St. Jerome’s pensive gaze and book-strewn study call to the viewer’s attention the temporality of life, which can be snuffed out as quickly as the candle smoldering on his desk. During the Kaleidoscope discussion, the numerous layers of meaning throughout the composition were explored to truly emphasize the complexity and virtuosity of Joos van Cleve and his studio. Saint Jerome in his Study is a masterwork, both in design and execution, and a cornerstone of our permanent collection.

However, the work has not always been such a strong and demanding piece. Consider how Saint Jerome appeared when it was first purchased by the Art Center in 1985.

Saint Jerome in his Study, in progress of conservation at the Williamstown Conservation Lab, 1986

Many of the most important areas of the work were badly compromised. Improper storage and water damage marred most of St. Jerome’s face. Large areas of the surface were brittle and paint was flaking off, while the panel itself was splitting and separating from its support system. Over the course of several trips to the Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory, the painting was restored to its current condition, but what does this say about how we value art?

As seen in the proposal for treatment, much of the composition was inpainted, meaning a modern hand has reconstructed much of St. Jerome’s face.

Proposal for Conservation Treatment Williamstown Regional Conservation Laboratory, Inc. 1986

When we look at a work of art dated from the 16th century, how does it affect our appreciation of the work, knowing not every brushstroke was applied by the original artist? The owner of any damaged work of art must make the ethical choice to display the object in its natural state, or to allow the intrusion of a conservationist. Should Saint Jerome in his Study have been displayed as it was: water damaged and flaking because like everything art ages, or should it be displayed as the artist intended, adorned in rich color and fine detail? Vassar College was willing to spend a significant amount of money to remove the passage of time and inevitable degradation of the appearance of Saint Jerome, and returned the panel to how it may have looked in its original state, but would we still enjoy Saint Jerome in his Study if it remained “cracked and brittle”? Is it the role of the museum to display only pristine pieces of art, even if the restoration of the finer qualities is accomplished in a modern lab instead of the studios of antiquity? Does the viewer demand perfection, or can we appreciate the evolution of a work as it ages and changes over time? Should the Art Center have intervened to save Saint Jerome, and is all art worth saving— What do you think?

Through the course of these posts I hope to explore these questions, and more like them, to discover how these issues affect the collection here at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

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