Sheldon and Caroline Keck Helped Improve the Craft of Restoration
By Jean Portell
After restoring one of the Museum of Modern Art’s most popular paintings, “The Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau, Caroline Keck received this Western Union telegram in 1954 from the museum’s guiding eminence Alfred Barr: MRS SHELDON KECK =87 STATE STREET= CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR MAGNIFICENT RESTORATION OF THE GYPSY. REALLY A GLORIOUS REVELATION. WE ARE DEEPLY GRATEFUL = ALFRED BARR.
Sheldon and Caroline Keck, who lived in Brooklyn Heights from 1940 to 1963, were prominent art conservators (restorers) who had learned a new approach to their craft from Edward Waldo Forbes, who brought art historians, restorers and scientists together at Harvard’s Fogg Museum in the early decades of the 20th century. Sheldon Keck met Caroline Kohn in 1931 while both were taking Forbes’s course on the methods and materials of Italian art. They moved to New York City in 1933 and married.
By the end of the next year Sheldon was working at the Brooklyn Museum, whose conservation laboratory was one of the earliest in this country to put into practice the principles develop by Forbes and others at Harvard. This meant scientific research of art materials, documentation of examinations and treatments, and open sharing of practical information among colleagues.
In moving to the Heights, the Kecks first rented at 11 Cranberry Street, then became homeowners at 87 State Street. They made friends, raised two sons, and weathered the disruptions of World War II. At 11 Cranberry they became close friends with the artistic couple in the penthouse apartment, John O’Hara Cosgrave II and Esta Cosgrave. Mrs. Cosgrave painted the Keck family in 18th century dress, a reproduction of which adorned the Kecks’ 1948 Christmas card.
In those years even artists were unaware of radical advances in art preservation theory and practice. Shortly before Sheldon entered the U.S. Army, a private club in New York consulted him about a flaking painting. His written recommendations were accepted, but he had time to do only first essential step: to carefully adhere pieces of thin tissue paper to the face of the painting with an adhesive that would secure the shifting flakes until he could return from the Army to finish the job. When an artist member of the club then saw the painting, he declared it was ruined – and “proved” his point by pulling off some of the tissue to show that paint was coming off. No amount of explanation from Caroline could convince him that he had removed a temporary layer intended to prevent further loss of paint.
While Sheldon was in military service, Caroline, who generally did conservation at home, filled in for him at the Brooklyn Museum. The Army had assigned him to the Monuments, Fine Arts, Archives Section, but in a Sept. 19, 1944, letter from “Somewhere in France,” he wrote his wife, “Still know nothing about Arts & Monument and expect nothing. Don’t even believe the army knows that I’m supposed to be in it as I have been classified as a clerk since I left the States.” Eventually he did become active with what were known as the Monuments Men, working to find and protect artworks that Hitler had removed from museums and private collections, so they eventually could be returned to rightful owners.
At the peak of their careers the Kecks were among New York’s most respected art restorers. Their hands touched the fronts and backs of iconic paintings held by the Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and others. They were hot!
Still, they could be controversial. Especially Caroline, who was the daughter of a Jewish jeweler on Fifth Avenue and a Christian schoolteacher from Massachusetts. She was known for speaking frankly, sprinkling vulgarities into her conversation. Her harsh words in public to some colleagues are even many years later a cause of hurt feelings.
Sheldon Waugh Keck, two years her junior, the son of a frugal schoolteacher at Erasmus Hall High School, was a calmer sort. As a boy he earned money delivering the Brooklyn Eagle. On graduating from Erasmus in 1928 he defied his father by accepting a scholarship to attend Harvard. There he was forced to shovel coal and snow for cash, as his father refused to send him funds. Thoughtful and studious, Sheldon rarely made negative comments abut anyone.
The Kecks’ different personalities made them a powerful “good cop, bad cop” duo as they pushed for higher goals in their profession.
In 1954, together with the Brooklyn Museum director and staff members, the Kecks created the ground-breaking “Take Care” exhibition that explained in detail the hows and whys of modern conservation. The display included captioned photographs of art works in various stages of restoration, as well as the museum laboratory’s microscope and X-ray machine. A companion book, How to Take Care of Your Pictures: A primer of practical information, written by Caroline Keck and illustrated by Ruth Sheetz Eisendrath, was jointly published by the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum.
By the time the Kecks sold their State Street home and moved permanently to Cooperstown, NY, Sheldon had become director of the first academic training program for art conservators in the U.S. (at New York University), and Caroline was head of the Brooklyn Museum laboratory.
Their dedication to improving how art conservation is taught and practiced was total. They were true pioneers in a rapidly evolving art field. Sheldon Keck died in Cooperstown in 1993, aged 83; Caroline survived until 2007, dying at 99, also in Cooperstown.
Jean Portell is working on a biography of the Kecks.
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