Caring for Clodion’s "Bacchante"

Clodion (French, 1738–1814), Bacchante Supported by Bacchus and a Faun, 1795

Clodion (Claude Michel) (French, 1738–1814), Bacchante Supported by Bacchus and a Faun, 1795, terracotta, The Norton Simon Foundation

June 25, 2020

However, a few small repairs were present when it entered the collection. These had been made using traditional materials, consistent with 19th- and early-20th-century practice. The right shin of the bacchante, and the area around Bacchus’ left foot, had broken and had been mended, likely with animal glue, with a few small losses filled with gypsum plaster. The mends had then been overpainted in an effort to make them visually blend in with the artwork. The original terracotta surface was not perfectly matched by the repairs. Additionally, the color of the retouchings had gradually altered, both from yellowing and due to the different way soiling had bonded to the surfaces. This made these areas a bit too distracting. Former Chief Curator Carol Togneri and I decided to see what corrections could be made to improve the sculpture’s appearance.

After determining that the repairs were stable and posing no structural risk to the artwork, I removed the old paint with tiny cotton swabs and solvent. This allowed me to confirm that the surface irregularities were all within the plaster-infilled areas along the break lines. I was then able to shave off slight amounts of the plaster with a scalpel and add small amounts of an acrylic paste to correct the surface. Finally, in order to match the very particular surface quality of the original, I developed my own ultra-flat retouching medium. By adding a little powdered lime and clays to dry artist pigments mixed with a synthetic resin, I was able to mimic the aged terracotta surface quite well, all with easily removable media.

This concept of “reversibility” is an important tenet of art conservation. One strives not to cause permanent change in an artwork, preserving as much evidence of the hand of the artist as possible. As is the case with these older repairs, they aged differently than the sculpture, necessitating their removal. Detailed documentation of methods and materials used, along with photos and diagrams, will help future conservators make whatever corrections are needed to my repairs in the future.

John Griswold is the Conservator of the Norton Simon Museum, where he leads efforts to preserve and care for the Simon collections.