Potash Hill

Melanie Gifford ’73: Conserving Art with Science

“Marlboro’s wide-ranging appreciation of all the disciplines and how they come together, at one time, in one mind, on one problem, is essential preparation for the future,” says Melanie Gifford ’73. For example, her Marlboro experience prepared her for a fascinating career as a research conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. “What the Plan of Concentration did for me, for my future career, was first and foremost to bring me into the study of art history in a rigorous, scholarly way.” 

Melanie did her Plan on the life and work of Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, inviting the great Columbia University art history scholar Julius Held as her outside examiner. She went on to get master’s degrees in both art history and art conservation, learning the chemistry and organic chemistry she needed along the way, and later receiving her PhD in art history from University of Maryland. 

As a research conservator for painting technology in the Scientific Research Department at the National Gallery, Melanie conducts research to help conserve the precious works of Vermeer, Rubens, van Eyck, and other Dutch and Flemish masters. But she also explores the ways these artists made their paintings, studying cross-sections of microscopic paint fragments to discover their techniques and choices, layer by layer. 

“By understanding how these works were created, there are times when I feel as if I’m looking over the shoulder of the artist and watching the decisions they make from day to day,” says Melanie. “This is a deeply emotional connection that sustains me every day.”