Conserving Gilliéron’s Watercolors

A virtuoso watercolorist, Émile Gilliéron (1850–1924) became the most important draftsman and popularizer of archaeological discoveries in Greece following his arrival in Athens in the late 1870s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is showcasing his work in the exhibition “Watercolors of the Acropolis: Émile Gilliéron in Athens” through January 5, 2020. The exhibit features five drawings — three of them more than 11 feet long — that depict architectural sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis. In addition to their documentary value, the drawings capture the power of the ancient sculptures’ mythological subjects, their effect intensified by the surviving traces of original color.

Starting in 2015, in preparation for the exhibition, three watercolors by Emil Gilliéron were studied and conserved, after more than 70 years in storage. See how they did it.


Émile Gilliéron père (Swiss, 1850–1924). Three-Bodied Winged Figure with a Snaky Tail, commonly known as “Bluebeard” (detail), 1919. After a sixth-century B.C. pedimental sculpture found on the Acropolis of Athens. Watercolor, graphite, and crayon on paper, 39 7/8 x 133 in. (101.3 x 337.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dodge Fund, 1919

The counterpart to Herakles Wrestling Triton in the right corner of the Hekatompedon pediment is composed of the torsos of three bearded and winged men emerging from a snaky lower body. Although the subject has been variously identified, it was called “Bluebeard” upon its discovery in 1888, and the nickname has stuck. Gilliéron depicted the rightmost head, which was found separately, both by itself and attached to its body. Rendered at full scale, the figures hold attributes of water, fire, and air, suggesting that they personify these elements, if not some larger cosmic concept.

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Kelly Kane
PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.


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