Nathan Stolow (1928–2014): An Art Conservation Pioneer


Nathan Stolow, at right, in front of Abraham and the Three Angels (c. 1670–74), oil on canvas, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, National Gallery of Canada, Acc. No. 4900, during the move of the collections in 1959. Credit: Rosemary Gilliat Eaton/Cole Harbour Rural Heritage Society, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia/NGC 1959 Move; negative 252. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa

Dr. Nathan Stolow died on October 28 in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the age of 86.

During his career as a conservation scientist, he made major contributions to our knowledge of art materials and technique, as well as their behaviour as they age and interact with the environment. He also made major contributions to environmental monitoring and control in art museums; safe methods for the transportation of fragile works of art; public education on the subject of art conservation; the use of modern materials by contemporary artists; the detection of fraudulent works through analysis and forensic examination; and the training of art conservators. He championed the introduction of scientific observation and analysis to the understanding of works of art, and made scientific research integral to the care of NGC collections. 

In 1956, then-Director of the National Gallery of Canada, Alan Jarvis, hired Stolow as a “scientific advisor” and, as Jean Sutherland Boggs recalls in her book, The National Gallery of Canada (1971), to undertake “research on the nature of artists’ materials as well as to supervise the documentation of the physical state of the collection.” Stolow, then in his late twenties, came with degrees in chemistry (McGill, 1949; Toronto, 1952) and a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute in London, where he had studied the “picture cleaning problem” from a materials science perspective. 


Nathan Stolow and Brydon Smith, who was attending the first course of its kind offered by NCRL, The Principles of Conservation of Works of Art and Historic Materials, February 1–12, 1965. Smith became Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada in 1967. Credit: John Evans, Ottawa. © Doris Evans. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa

Jarvis’ first charge to Stolow was to survey North American and European art museums that had conservation departments, with a view to broadening and deepening the role of the NGC’s existing restoration workshop — a service that had been in existence since 1912. When he got back to Ottawa in 1957, Stolow set about launching the Conservation and Scientific Research Division inside the NGC. This unit — and its several subsequent iterations — revolutionized conservation at the NGC and throughout Canada. In its present form as the Canadian Conservation Institute, it remains productive and influential worldwide.

Stolow became Chief of the new Division in 1958, and oversaw the move of the NGC collections from the Victoria Memorial Building to the Lorne Building. This was an opportunity to gain practical experience in the monitoring and control of temperature and relative humidity, while also setting the stage for his study of methods for safely transporting works of art.

Once established in the new laboratory facilities at the Lorne Building, Stolow returned to studying the effects of picture cleaning solvents on drying oil films, assisted by a number of newly hired scientists, with a stream of graduate students as assistants. In 1959, the first edition of On Picture Varnishes and Their Solvents was published, with major contributions from Stolow, and co-edited by him with Robert Feller and Elizabeth Jones. This book, and its two subsequent revisions, outlines a modern, scientifically informed understanding of how paintings should be cleaned, and remains an important art conservation resource.

Left to right: Inspector J.L. Erskine, Anti-rackets Branch, Ontario Provincial Police, Nathan Stolow, Director, National Conservation and Research Laboratory, National Gallery of Canada, A.J. Casson. Canadian Art Fraud Case, 1963–64. Photographer: Unknown

Elsewhere, Stolow engaged with contemporary artists, surveying their practices with questionnaires, and lecturing art students on artists’ materials, their stability, and the construction of works of art for permanence. In 1962–1964, he provided expert opinion in an infamous and scandalous incident which came to be  known as the “Canadian Art Fraud Case.” 

In 1964, Stolow’s division gained new autonomy and influence within the NGC when it was renamed the National Conservation Research Laboratory (NCRL): a conservation department in which conservators and scientists would work alongside one another, and where conservation science and research and conservation of the national art collection would be integrated. The success of this model led to the NCRL being split off from the NGC in 1972 to form the Canadian Conservation Institute. Stolow was named the CCI’s first Director General. Through the ensuing years and continuing today, the CCI is one of the world’s foremost institutions for conservation research, practice and training.


Gerhard Herzberg, winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Nathan Stolow, opening night at the NGC, January 13, 1972, for Progress in Conservation, 1972–74. Stolow demonstrates one of the two working microscopes included in the exhibition. Credit: Duncan Cameron / Library and Archives Canada/Acc. 1975-155, file 11650-1, negative no. 27. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa

Stolow’s career continued elsewhere when he left Ottawa in 1979, as Senior Curator of Conservation at the National Gallery of Australia (Canberra), and as Foundation Conservator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia. He was an independent consultant for many years after his retirement from Williamsburg in 1987.

Born to Russian immigrant parents in Montreal, Stolow found himself blessed with good timing, in that he was able to bring forth his ideas at a time when there were the enthusiasm and resources to support them. At the same time, he forged an independent and unique path for himself through his academic training and his professional interests and associations. He ensured that he knew exactly what the “state of the art” was in art restoration, and who its practitioners and influencers were before he set out to reconstruct and improve that world. He systematically envisaged a new way of understanding the nature of works of art, and successfully created  institutions that would manifest his vision.

This article is based on research by former NGC Chief Conservator, Marion H. Barclay, published as The National Gallery and Nathan Stolow in the Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation, volume 37, 2012.

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