Science saves art

A conservator borrows techniques from the life sciences to care for aging masterpieces

Kent Steinriede
Nov 15, 2006
As a young art conservator at the Winterthur museum near Wilmington, Del., Richard Wolbers was assigned an early 19th century painting that needed cleaning. It was Jacob Eichholtz's portrait of Ann Ross Hopkins, grand-daughter of George Ross, one of the Pennsylvania signers of the Declaration of Independence. The oil paint had been covered with a coating of varnish, and applications of linseed oil had dulled the appearance of the portrait.Having trained as a biochemist at the University of California, San Diego before studying art conservation, Wolbers decided to apply a lipase enzyme to help break down the layer of oil. "It worked like magic," said Wolbers, now 56 and an associate professor and coordinator of science at the University of Delaware's conservation program at Winterthur. In the life sciences, using enzymes is routine. In art conservation in the mid-1980s, it was radical. Word of his success with the enzyme spread...

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