Recently, Assistant Curator of Photographs Jamie M. Allen and I (Archivist, Joe R. Struble) transported a large oil painting (roughly 4-feet by 3-feet) by the Florentine artist Giacomo Martinetti to the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State University. The fragile piece had been expertly packaged by Eastman House’s Exhibitions Preparator Nick Marshall.
The painting of three girls is of significant interest and was signed by the artist and dated 1877. Its provenance is unknown, just one of the many mysteries about it.
Its relevance to our collection of photographs rests in the painted renderings of two framed Cabinet Card photographs on the table next to the sisters (if they are sisters) and has led to speculation that these girls are orphans and the painting a sort of memento-mori. (The jury – made up of Photo Collection staff – is definitely out on that, however).
During a visit to Eastman House, students from Buffalo State were taken by the condition of the damaged painting and its needs for treatment (as we had rather hoped).
We were fortunate in getting this object evaluated for treatment by the Art Conservation Department, which will then assign the work to a student, Megan Salazar-Walsh in the Graduate program at Buffalo State.
But the question remains, who are these girls – and who are the man and woman in the Cabinet Card?
Founded in 1970, Buffalo State’s Art Conservation Department is one of the leading programs of its kind in North America. Accepting only 10 students a year, the competitive three-year graduate program trains conservators of fine- art and material-cultural heritage. The program’s director and associate professor is Patrick C. Ravines, well-known to Jamie and Joe and others at Eastman House since he was one of the students in our museum’s Advanced Residency Program in Photographic Conservation. He took us on a spellbinding tour of the facility, including the “under construction” third floor, scheduled to open this August. This addition will double the space of the current facility, housed in the building that was previously occupied by Burchfield Penney Art Center. As we went from room to room in the current treatment labs, we were enlightened as to the program’s mission and scope.
A large painting lay carefully supported face down on a table while part of its elaborately carved and gilded wooded frame was being repaired. In another room, a section of a stained glass window, a portrait of a young and unknown (to us) bishop-saint from one of Buffalo’s many glorious, but now unused, Catholic churches was in a state of repair. Evidently, a museum of religious art is in the works for Buffalo, which will preserve and display these treasures.
We were not prepared, however, for the specimen in the next room — a taxidermied juvenile female orangutan, standing and staring glassy-eyed as we entered. She had once been a living resident of the famous Buffalo Zoo, and then stuffed and mounted at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Moth-eaten and coming apart at the seams, she had been rescued by one of the Buffalo conservation students and returned to her red-furred glory, ready to be admired again.
All-in-all, our experience in Buffalo was a wonderful “snapshot” of the varieties of material objects that relate to the field of conservation and an opportunity to make a connection with colleagues in a related endeavor, all on a lovely summer day.
Joe Struble is the Department of Photography Collection Manager at George Eastman House.