“You have to be able to touch it to work on it,” she says. “A brain surgeon has to lay hands on her patient. Me, too.”
Steele is in the midst of “consolidation,” the conservator’s term for gluing down lifted cracked paint that threatens to peel off the canvas. Degas’s work is propped on wooden blocks about ten inches above the table. Steele positions a small contraption under a spot where she sees paint lifting off.
Polish inventor Wieslaw Mitka invented this machine in the late 1980s to help conservators repair paintings. Placed under the canvas, it gently heats the paint and applies suction to pull the cracked paint down.
Steele places the device under a dancer’s arm. She adjusts the height and heat and turns on the suction. Then she dips a tiny sable brush into a small cup of isinglass, a pure white gelatin glue made from the air bladders of sturgeon. She runs the tip of the brush along the edge of each crack. The glue disappears in the crack; the paint adheres to the canvas.
“You don’t want it to be flat as a pancake,” she says. “You want it to be as flat as possible without flattening the surface texture. It’s a judgment call.”
She shifts the contraption under a dancer’s leg, dips the brush into the isinglass, and runs it along the edge of another crack.
Steele was born in Nashville. She became interested in art restoration while studying international relations in London.
“I spent a lot of time in museums, and I took art classes on the side,” she says. “Then I met an art restorer named Nelly Münthe who lived down the street. I became infatuated with what she did.
“I loved the material, the brushes, and working with my hands, but I didn’t want to be an artist—and I loved the science.”
She earned a degree in international relations but went on to study art history. She took courses in chemistry and physics. She returned to America and apprenticed for three years in a conservation firm in Nashville. She got a master’s degree from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She interned at the National Gallery of Art, then won a two-year fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1986 she came back to Washington and began working on art at the Phillips as a consultant. She joined the staff in 1989 and became head of conservation in 2002.
A few weeks later, “Dancers at the Bar” is once again upright on an easel. Consolidation is complete. She is ready to repaint the places that have been torn or scratched during 90 years of sales and travels and exhibitions.
The colors of the painting look much brighter than the last time I saw it.
“I thought I was finished cleaning it,” Steele says, “but when I went back to tidy it up, I discovered a whole new layer of dust and varnish.”
So she applied the solvents again, one square inch at a time. “It got a lot brighter,” she says. The dark lines along the dancers’ legs and skirts now are a brilliant Prussian blue; the orange background is almost aflame around the dancers’ heads.
All of this was preparation for retouching. “The really fun part,” she says.
The most significant tear is a two-inch gash in the paint on the lower right corner of the canvas, which depicts the floor of the dance studio. It looks like a thin caterpillar with a small head on its left end. The gash goes down to the bare canvas. Steele has applied a putty filling, made in Italy, to fill in the gap.
“Kind of like filling a tooth,” she says.
Now it’s time to channel Degas—to paint on his canvas and make the “worm” disappear into the floor. In real life the floor might have been a monochrome of dark brown wood, but Degas used at least four or five colors to give the floor depth. I see green, turquoise, jade, maroon, rose.
Did he start with purple and add cadmium? Was his pigment vermillion or earth red? The Impressionists of Degas’s day were beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution, which broadened their palette with manmade colors. Cobalt violet, one of Degas’s favorites, was introduced in 1859.
“My best guess is that Degas used purple in the underpainting,” Steele says.
She surveys her palette: 50 tiny plastic cups filled with powdered pigments. She scoops out some grains of cobalt violet. Making a medium of vinyl acetate, ethanol, and diacetone alcohol, she mixes it into a liquid paint and applies it in dabs to the slit. In minutes the worm is purple.
Just as quickly, the afternoon sun fades, and light leaves her studio. “Done for the day,” she says.
We have to wait a week before storms pass through Washington, clouds leave the sky over the Phillips, and sun pours through the four windows in the ceiling of Steele’s studio.
She sends me an e-mail at 10:41: “Am starting now. Come on over.”
I find Steele peering at the floor of “Dancers” through magnifying loupes attached to a headpiece. The purple is gone. She has mixed chrome yellow with cadmium red on a small white ceramic tile she uses as a final palette. She picks up paint with a tiny sable brush and applies it to the canvas with light brush strokes, some quick daubs, some curving strokes.
“I try to weave it together like a puzzle,” she says. “Degas used so many colors, it’s easy to hide your tracks. So far, I have been hitting it.”
One paint stroke stands out.
“That’s probably too red,” she says. “Better to start brighter and take it down a notch.” “Scrumbling” it’s called.
By noon the major tear has disappeared. Steele moves on to scratches near one dancer’s leg.
“My retouching is pretty much complete,” she says.
To finish her restoration of “Dancers at the Bar,” Steele applied a coat of matte varnish to protect the painting without making it glossy.
On January 10, Lilli Steele hung “Dancers at the Bar” in the West Parlor of the Phillips Collection, confident that it looked almost exactly as it did when it left Edgar Degas’s studio 90 years ago.