Few man-made things last forever. Buildings, books and bridges crumble if no one takes care of them.
Paintings in particular discolour, tear and get damaged over the years when they’re on display, being handled and getting shipped.
Conservators try to both reverse and prevent damage to paintings as well as sculptures, books and artifacts.
Claude Belleau, 48, heard about this unique career around the time he was starting an art history degree at Concordia University in Montreal.
Growing up in nearby Chambly, Belleau loved to paint and draw, and he also had a passion for history. (Easy to do in a town that boasts Fort Chambly, built in 1711.)
“As far back as I can remember I loved looking at books with old masters’ paintings. I was as young as 13 or 14 when I was looking at that stuff.”
It took two tries, but Belleau eventually got into the masters program in art conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston, the only such program in Canada.
The degree blended art with science, and Belleau learned about how paint pigments decay and how temperature and humidity can either preserve or break down materials.
After graduation, Belleau got experience in Quebec City and in Belgium, and ended up spending 20 years at the Museé National des Beaux-Arts du Québec as staff conservator.
Looking for a change, Belleau joined the Glenbow Museum in Calgary three months ago.
At work, he examines paintings from the museum’s collection, pieces that have been borrowed or works that the museum wants to buy. He then writes reports on what he sees. For the museum’s pieces, he’ll propose repairs.
Those suggestions are then approved or rejected by the museum either based on time (sometimes there just isn’t enough if a show is about to go up) or concerns about risk to the painting.
He also meets with other staff members to consult on preventing risk to paintings and makes suggestions for, for instance, safe shipping.
He also spends time in the museum’s lab, which he shares with two other conservators (one works with paper, the other with artifacts). There, he relies on special tables and other equipment to repair holes, redo finishes, remount canvases and do touch-ups with pigment.
“It’s very precise work. It requires dexterity. And you need to be patient,” says Belleau. Some paintings take just a few hours of work. Some of the massive church paintings he conserved while working in Quebec took hundreds of hours.