Conserving Matisse at SFMOMA

In keeping with the collaborative spirit of Matisse from SFMOMA, currently on view at the Legion of Honor, we’ve teamed up with SFMOMA to bring you this blog post, which originally appeared on SFMOMA’s Facebook page. Don Ross, an artist and educator who currently holds the position of Photographer/Imaging Specialist at SFMOMA, takes us behind the scenes as Henri Matisse’s important work, Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), undergoes conservation investigation to better understand the artist’s process prior to exhibition.

The backside of a painting with labels detailing its world travels

This fall several departments at SFMOMA came together to transport, examine, clean, and photograph several works by Henri Matisse before they were loaned to the Legion of Honor for the special exhibition, Matisse from SFMOMA. In addition to in-house work, a visiting conservator and a pigment scientist also examined Joie de Vivre. Their work contributed important information to research about the various pigments used by Matisse. Everyone benefitted from this action-packed collaboration.

To prepare the painting for the exhibition, photographer Ben Blackwell began by readying daylight-balanced lights with a soft translucent screen.

A photographer adjusts lights to better see a Matisse painting on an easel

Photography of the work was done with the painting on its side to emulate light coming from the top (“north light”). This brought forth the fine brushwork as Matisse painted it, and as he intended it to be seen. This shot shows the oil-on-canvas sketch for Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905–1906, an early study for Matisse’s larger masterpiece, The Joy of Life, which is in the collection of the Barnes Foundation.

The painting is positioned on its side on an easel with raking light arranged in front of it

In early October, conservation scientist Jennifer Mass from the Winterthur Museum and conservator Barbara Buckley from the Barnes Foundation paid a visit to the museum to more closely examine the painting. Together, they performed pigment analysis and collected technical data to note the differences between SFMOMA’s sketch and the Barnes Foundation's larger painting, the latter of which has seen some color shifting over the past 100 years. In particular, they tried to identify if Matisse used the same batch of cadmium yellow oil paint to create both works, an endeavor which required both physical and chemical study.

Two conservators lean in to examine the painting on its easel

Illuminating SFMOMA’s Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) under ultraviolet (UV) light, the team looked closely at certain sections of color.

A blue/black ultraviolet light is pointed at the painting in a darkened room

Using a special camera filter, the team was also able to record InfraRed (IR) data.

A digital camera viewfinder reveals the infrared filter directed at the painting

Afterward, under regular studio lights, Mass and Buckley used a hand-held, non-destructive XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence) unit that revealed the specific chemical composition through many layers of paint.

Three images display the tools and how they're used to determine pigment composites on a painting

The chemical composition readings from the spot tested were formatted in graph form, and revealed high levels of cadmium, chrome, and zinc.

A computer-generated graph illustrating various chemical levels found in the pigments

A patch of cadmium yellow paint from the Barnes Foundation painting revealed an ivory crust outside the yellow interior.

A hand points to a spot on an annotated image on a computer screen

Back in the Conservation Lab, the team had a last look under SFMOMA’s high-powered microscope.

A conservator looks through a microscope at the painting

The differences in the paint’s composition and its physical characteristics suggested that Matisse used different batches of cadmium yellow when he painted the two paintings.

Take a closer look at Henri Matisse’s Le Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) on view in Matisse from SFMOMA through September 7, 2014.