Sandstone Statue of Amenhotep
By Hayley Monroe
The renovation of the RISD Museum’s sixth-floor galleries has given the Conservation Department an excellent opportunity to work on various pieces which otherwise have been on constant display. A few weeks ago, we heard about work being done on the 12th-century Dainichi Nyorai Buddha. Another such piece is an ancient Egyptian sandstone statue of priest named Amenhotep.
The statue dates from the mid-18th Dynasty, roughly 1300 BCE, and is thought to be from a temple at the site of Deir el-Bahari, near Luxor. Known to have been housed in the 19th century in France in the private collection of the Comte de Saint-Ferriol, and then by the Musée Saint-Martin-d’Uriage, the statue finally made its way to the United States via New York and was acquired in 1940 by the RISD Museum, where it has been on display ever since.
For much of that time the statue was displayed in the open, not under a protective case or hood, and the stone slowly became dark and dull with accumulated dust and oils from the hands of passersby who touched the head, shoulders, knees, and feet. The goal for this project is to gently clean the statue, thoroughly document points of interest both ancient and modern, and to have it ready to return to the galleries for public display in 2014.
The first step prior to undertaking cleaning of any work of art is to document the piece as it is. In this case, we took note of traces of original pigment, modern repairs and fills, traces of modern paint, varnish, or sealer (a UV light helps as many modern materials and adhesives fluoresce when exposed) and investigated the portions of Amenhotep’s face believed to have been reconstructed in the early 20th century, before the piece came to RISD.
A photograph in a French article dating from about 1919 indicates that at some point in its history, this statue suffered damage to the face. However, sometime after the photograph was published and before the statue came to RISD, the broken portions of the face were carefully restored using a pliable material mixed with sand to match the texture of the original stone. A tiny sample of this material was taken and analyzed by a conservation scientist at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Initial results indicate a mixture of cellulose nitrate (an adhesive commonly used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for restorations of this kind), quartz sand, and clay.
While the existence of original red pigment on the statue’s feet had been known for some time, it suggested that there might be other traces on the rest of the piece. More color has been discovered both during documentation and cleaning. Analysis has revealed traces of red pigment on the hands and neckline as well as the feet, white and yellow on the seat and robe, very faint traces of red in some of the lines between the hieroglyphs, and tiny traces of bright blue in the recesses of some the hieroglyphs themselves.
Pigments used by ancient Egyptian artisans have been widely researched, and it is likely that the palette used to paint Amenhotep included red and yellow ochers, powdered white gypsum or calcium carbonate, and one of the earliest-known synthetic pigments, Egyptian blue, made from the smelting of minerals containing calcium, copper, and silica.
Cleaning an object can be as much about discovery as it is about removing accumulated dust and grime. The more we know about each object’s composition, history, and previous treatment, the better we can address the next cleaning project.
Pre-Program Conservation Intern, RISD Museum