The Cincinnati Art Museum’s Conservation Efforts Are an Artform in and of Themselves

This 19th century umbrella stand is a prime example.

Created by early Cincinnati ceramist and painter M. Louise McLaughlin, this 19th century umbrella stand was pieced together by Cincinnati Art Museum Object Conservator Kelly Rectenwald—with a little help from a journal kept by the artist. Just as McLaughlin spent months developing an underglaze technique rarely seen in American art, restoring the piece required patience and careful testing to ensure the final product remained true to its original form. See the restored piece on display now in the museum’s Cincinnati Wing.

Umbrella Stand, 1880, M. Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939), earthenware, Donated by Rosemary Burke in memory of her loving husband, Don Burke, 2018.67

Photograph by Wes Battoclette

Conservation 101
When conserving an artwork—sometimes hundreds, if not thousands of years old—the team at the Cincinnati Art Museum follows a very strict “do no harm” policy. “We work with conservation approved materials,” Rectenwald says, “that won’t react with the piece over time.”

Under Pressure
When the museum acquired the ceramic umbrella stand last year, it was held together with wire wrapped around the body. It had several loose pieces that sprung when they broke off. “Ceramics have a lot of tension when they break,” Rectenwald says.

Trial and Error
The artist’s relatives donated archival materials to the museum, including a journal full of detailed notes, ideas, and ledgers. Next to this piece, created on August 8, 1880, the artist noted that the colors were “very fine,” but that the piece had cracked during firing.

What’s Underneath
In her journal, the artist noted that this piece took approximately 2.5 hours to paint—a significant amount of time. The underglaze technique she used requires meticulous yet rapid paint strokes, which create a texture similar to that of an oil painting.

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