More than four million people visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC each year. Where else can they see the world’s largest mobile and the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas? Though the initial collection consisted of only 126 paintings and 26 sculptures given by Andrew Mellon, it now includes hundreds of thousands of artworks from around the globe and across time periods.
In addition to these treasures, there are riches untold behind closed doors. Tucked away in an area accessible only to employees is the Art Materials Collection, exclusively reserved for researchers, scholars and scientists. Nestled into pristine white boxes and custom cabinetry are more than 18,000 samples of paint, pastels, tools and other items with which one may create.
The collection was acquired from the enterprising and forward thinking Zora Pinney who owned a gallery turned art supply store with her husband from the 1960s – 1980s. She sought out the highest quality materials and educated herself and her customers about creating art to stand the test of time. That’s one of the reasons this collection is so important.
Part artist and part scientist, professional conservators must be confident of the material make-up of any artwork before they lift a finger to address damage. Like the medical profession, the first rule is do no harm. The best protectors are knowledge and comparative analysis. The Art Materials Collection serves as a repository for the next generation of conservators who will inevitably attend to 20th century masterworks.
This collection also offers a glimpse into the art materials industry, a segment of the visual art world few ever consider. An assortment of trade magazines, print publications, catalogs and correspondence illuminate trends in the art materials business, advances in technology and the evolution of safety standards.
Among the pencils and pigments are a kaleidoscopic array of glass slides, painstakingly prepared with swipes of paints in various opacities. French curves, straight edges, and other tools used by American painter Richard Diebenkorn are stored in one drawer. Another drawer contains stencils for pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s famous Benday dots as well as other paper elements he used to plan compositions.
The Art Materials Collection includes a menagerie of animal hair for specialized art brushes. Examples range from badger and ox-tail hair which withstands thick oil paints to squirrel, sable and goat hair best used for watercolor. Perhaps the most exotic representative is the Nepalese mongoose hair especially suited for applying delicate gold leaf.
As the National Gallery’s Conservation Administrator, Michael Skalka oversees the collection, provides technical expertise and serves as a resource for the study of works of art. When his schedule permits, he publishes a newsletter entitled “The Grammar of Color” that provides insight into the history of pigments, important persons related to art materials, artists' techniques, health and safety issues related to art materials and analysis of trends in the fine arts.
Zora Pinney would be proud.