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Visitors will Observe Conservators Investigating Monet's "Water Lilies"
Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926). Water Lilies, ca. 1916-1926. Oil on canvas. Unframed: 78 3/4 inches x 13 feet 11 1/2. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust.

KANSAS CITY, MO.- Visitors to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on June 24 and 25 and July 1 and 2 will be able to observe Museum conservation specialists as they perform various scientific examinations on Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. The examination is made possible with an award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of a $1 million challenge grant.

The grant’s purpose is to establish an endowment to provide additional scientific expertise for research and conservation investigation on items in the Museum’s collection. The study of Water Lilies is part of a project to study all of the Museum’s 101 French Impressionist paintings and works of art on paper, which will be featured in a future catalogue.

Monet painted three massive water lily canvases depicting the vista from his own gardens in Giverny. The Nelson-Atkins’ Water Lilies measures 14 by 6 feet. The two others are located at the St. Louis Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The three will be brought together for an exhibition Monet’s Water Lilies, first at the Nelson-Atkins in April of 2011 and then at the other two museums in the following two years.

This will be the first time all three paintings have been displayed together since 1979 when the triptych was exhibited first at the Nelson-Atkins and then at St. Louis and Cleveland.

Because the size of Water Lilies makes it difficult to move, it will be lifted off the wall, rested on pads and leaned against the wall for examination. The area will be roped off so conservators can do their work, but allow visitors to watch.

“This will allow for a true scientific examination of the work, which is one of the essential missions of the Museum,” said Elisabeth Batchelor, director of conservation and collections at the Nelson-Atkins. “Most people think Impressionist painters worked quickly on their canvasses, but that was not the case with Monet’s Water Lilies. The x-ray examination has already shown us the degree of deliberation and reworking as far as composition and painting.”

At 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on June 24 and 25 and July 1 and 2, Mary Schafer, associate conservator, paintings, will give a brief explanation of what visitors are observing.

The painting will be examined using high magnification and various forms of radiation, including visible light, ultraviolet radiation, infrared radiation and x-rays.

The Mellon grant provides funds to retain the services of a science advisor John Twilley and a scientist, Johanna Bernstein, from Rutgers–The State University of New Jersey, who will visit the Museum in July to conduct paint sample studies involving the pin prick removal of paint layers for chemical analysis of pigments. Bernstein has advanced degrees in materials science and engineering.

The scientific examination will highlight the complexity of Monet’s process and the extent to which he built up his painting with several layers of paint over time. “This in turn complicates accepted ideas about Monet as a spontaneous outdoors painter and emphasizes the extent to which revision and re-working were central to his artistic practice,” said Simon Kelly, associate curator, European painting and sculpture, at the Nelson-Atkins. Kelly was recently named Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the St. Louis Art Museum.

The Mellon $1 million challenge grant requires that the Museum raise $750,000 in two years. A $100,000 bridge award from the Mellon Foundation, however, allows the Museum to continue with projects that have demonstrated the value of the program over the pasts four years. The current project chosen was the study of the French Impressionist paintings and works on paper.

“The Museum has long been proud of its conservation staff, which is highly regarded by our peer museums. This grant will add additional scientific expertise available to them and our curators in the preservation, restoration and understanding of the Museum’s works of art,” said Karen Christiansen, interim director of the Nelson-Atkins.

Other potential projects for scientific study include a number of Chinese bronzes, ceramics, murals and statues; works of art from the South, Southeast Asian and Islamic collection; technical studies of Roman sculpture; conservation questions regarding photography prints; painting treatments of Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Hans Memling’s Madonna and Child Enthroned; and systematic study of the Burnap Collection of English Pottery.

A scientific advisory committee composed of Museum art historians and conservators would be joined by outside scientific consultants to determine which projects would be best chosen for scientific study and which experts should be retained for those projects.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art | Monet's "Water Lilies" | Elisabeth Batchelor | Karen Christiansen |

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