The Lady: Conserving 19th Century Sculpture
Joseph, Count of Nogent (artist), French, 1813-after 1863 / J.J. Ducel Fils (foundry), Paris, France. Title Unknown (The Lady) (detail), ca. 1850, cast iron. Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art. Gift of Amy Adams. 2021.5
TMA’s latest sculpture acquisition is now on view in the Patricia Morgan & Peter Salomon Sculpture Garden. Her original name is unknown so we call her The Lady. The French 19th-century cast iron sculpture was created by Joseph, Count of Nogent, and the foundry was JJ. Ducel et Fils in Paris.
The Lady, a gift from Amy Adams, looks great for her age, which is approximately 170. But let’s be honest—she’s had some work done.
The sculpture came to TMA in the condition you see here, looking like a fresh-faced 23-year-old. She was accompanied by a report detailing conservation work undertaken since the 1970s. Just between us, she’s had more than one procedure.
An outdoor sculpture made of cast iron, and then exposed to a variety of environmental conditions for more than 150 years, will inevitably rust. This oxidation occurs unevenly because of rainwater trapped in nooks and crannies—in the case of The Lady, things like folds in the fabric drape, the bowl of her lap, small holes and pits from casting defects—so some areas can be severely rusted and prone to further oxidation while others have very little. This is bad for the structural integrity of the sculpture, and also results in a surface with uneven color that looks unattractive.
The Lady prior to conservation work in 1986.
The Lady was first sandblasted in the mid-1970s and then painted white. Ten years later she was taken to South Coast Fine Art Conservation Center in Santa Barbara, CA, where conservators worked to stabilize physical condition problems and address surface disfigurement from deterioration and damage (the goal of art conservation).
For her 1986 facelift The Lady was sandblasted with 90 pounds of air pressure and #30 silica sand. The resulting surface was matte gray. An aluminum patch on the drape near the left foot was revealed, but the piece was otherwise in good condition—the areas that had appeared severely oxidized were only superficial. Dental tools and picks were used to remove remaining flecks of white paint. There are several treatments for controlling the oxidation of iron, and in this case a phosphoric acid solution was used to stop the rusting process in some areas.
Sandblasting at the South Coast Fine Art Conservation Center in Santa Barbara, CA, to remove the layer of white paint.
Conservators then consulted with sculptors, metal workers and gallery owners about how to patina the surface. Creating a uniformly oxidized surface helps to prevent further uncontrolled oxidation, plus it looks good. Because The Lady was to be displayed in a private home, appearance was likely a concern for the owners.
A commercial oxidizing solution was applied to the entire surface, then the sculpture was wrapped tightly in plastic. After 24 hours it was unwrapped and examined. The oxidation was uneven in areas, so the solution was again applied to the entire surface and the sculpture was rewrapped in plastic. A second inspection 24 hours later showed the desired amount of oxidation, so the surface was allowed to dry and it was brushed all over to remove a fine layer of red dust.
Following sandblasting and controlled oxidation.
Carnauba wax was chosen as a protective coating over the surface of the sculpture. The first coat was diluted with mineral spirits to help it penetrate the semi-porous surface of the cast iron. It was also tinted dark brown to even out areas with mottled color because of uneven oxidation. After each application of wax the surface was brushed with a soft brush and then polished with a cloth, leading to the sheen you see today. The finished piece has an appearance similar to bronze sculpture, with warmth and variation of color.
The Lady is a very peaceful companion. You can visit her in TMA’s Patricia Morgan & Peter Salomon Sculpture Garden, sharing a few contemplative moments in an otherwise busy world.
Following the second application of carnauba wax.
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