|Charles and Jacque Olin have successfully navigated a solid marriage and a career that spans disparate disciplines.
Nearly 50 years ago, when TV was black and white, and keyboards were Smith Coronas, the British author C.P. Snow published a seminal essay about a divided intellectual world—science and the arts. Neither scientists nor artists understood the language and concerns of the other, Snow lamented in The Two Cultures and The Scientific Revolution. He further fretted that the educational system, worldwide, was suffering because of scientific illiteracy among artists, and artistic illiteracy among scientists. There were too many specialists and not enough generalists being produced. “It is dangerous to have two cultures which can’t or don’t communicate,” he sighed.
Coincidentally, while Snow was in Cambridge, England, creating a tempest over these weighty issues, two individuals in Carlisle, Pa., were concocting a blend of interests and vocations that would effectively unite the two cultures.
Fall 1953. Charles Hilden Olin, a sophomore physics major, is playing Beethoven on the piano in the old Kappa Sig house, playing quite beautifully, thinks Jacque Smith, a senior chemistry major who’s stopped by the house, and pauses for a listen. The two chat about her upcoming trip to Europe with Milton Flower ’31, professor of fine arts and political science. Europe is old stomping grounds for Charles. His father, a West Pointer and career army officer, had moved his wife and only child to postings around Europe, culminating in three years in England.
As a teen in London Charles had an unconventional education—for an American. Instead of attending high school, he studied English literature and history with a tutor, then made a false start as an engineering major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His father, by then at the U.S. Army War College, suggested a liberal-arts college as a better fit. And so Charles found himself at Dickinson, the right place for a young man with artistic as well as scientific inclinations.
His future wife, whose mother was a nurse and father a grocer in Allentown, Pa., had been interested in science in high school. Jacque applied to Dickinson and the University of Pennsylvania, and says with a smile, “I went with the smaller college.”
The pairing of Charles and Jacque seemed somewhat unlikely, as Charles reflects that he was a loner who moved off campus after his first semester and had little involvement in social activities. Jacque, on the other hand, had a list of involvements that reads like a Dickinson Who’s Who—Phi Beta Kappa, Wheel and Chain, president of Chi Omega sorority, organizer of theatrical productions, field hockey, baseball and basketball player.
While Jacque was close to her chemistry professors, Horace Rogers and Ernest Vuilleumier, Charles had a more eclectic approach to his studies, looking beyond the hard sciences to faculty in the arts. Studying with Joseph Shepherd, the artist-in-residence borrowed from the Maryland Institute of Art, Charles discovered his own talent for painting and a fascination for how paintings are made. A course with Flower in American art further intrigued him. Little did he know this undergraduate exposure to art would set his course for the next 50 years.
But first there was that romantic business. The couple continued to court after Jacque graduated and moved to Harvard for a year to earn an M.A. in biochemistry. They married in December 1956, and Jacque traveled between Carlisle and Philadelphia for graduate work at Penn in biochemistry.
Charles finished up at Dickinson and entered the Marine Corps, spending four years as a guided-missile officer, possibly because of his physics degree. In 1959 Jacque returned to Dickinson to teach physical chemistry. By then, she recalls telling Charles, “We’re getting out of the military and going to grad school.”
The two headed for Cornell University, where Jacque was offered a fellowship in biophysics and did graduate studies in the philosophy of science. Charles, the former physics major, began graduate work at the School of Painting, while painting, selling and exhibiting his work. “I went out into the painting world, but I was so opposed to the modern scene,” he says. “I wanted to get back to the masters. I wanted to study how paintings were made.”
A new program at New York University in art conservation and preservation would allow him to do just that. Charles accepted a four-year Rockefeller Fellowship and entered an emerging field that required him to study yet another discipline with which he was largely unfamiliar, art history.
Charles learned how to assess damage done over the years to works of art, to analyze solutions to restoration problems, to look below the surface to discover repainting that had been done to original works, to detect forged signatures, and so forth. He used scientific methods and ingenuity to observe, measure, analyze and repair and support deteriorating canvases. Meanwhile, Jacque taught science at the Lenox School. By then, they had a daughter, Debbie, and the free tuition Jacque received as a benefit was a bonus.
While studying with some of the pioneers of art conservation, Charles wrote a 10-page letter to the Smithsonian, proposing that he start the institution’s first lab for art conservation. Offer accepted, Charles arrived in 1962 as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s conservation and analytical lab.
“I had to start the lab from scratch, buy the equipment,” he says. Eventually he acquired the instrumentation to “take samples and analyze to see why a painting was changing.” He employed X-rays and infrared photography, among other techniques, to peek below the surface of damaged masterpieces without further harming them.
Until 1971, he served as head conservator at the U.S. National Museum (now the National Museums of Natural History and American History, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art), teaching bevies of graduate students who today are leading conservators around the country.
At the same time that Charles began his lab, Jacque also was hired at the Smithsonian, where she directed a research department of scientists and archaeologists in a lab for archaeometry—“the application of science to archaeology and art history,” as she explains it. Charles clarifies that archaeometry dates materials through analytical methods. Science provides the information from the materials to establish their provenance.
“I did work on possible Drake pottery by taking samples and analyzing them,” says Jacque. She also focused on Spanish and Mexican majolica pottery, sponsoring a dig in Mexico. Though retired since 1995, she has spent the last few years producing evidence to refute a claim that an ancient map of the New World is a forgery.
The medieval Vinland map, depicting the northern Atlantic coast, has been owned by Yale University since 1957. It was reported to be a hoax in the 1970s. Jacque has analyzed minerals in the ink and concluded they could be byproducts of the medieval ink-manufacturing process, and therefore, the real deal.
Her findings were published in Analytical Chemistry in 2003. She presented her theory at a conference in Copenhagen in 2004 and at the Library of Congress in 2005 and plans to continue the dialogue at a session of the American Institute for Conservation conference in 2007.
While Jacque stayed with the Smithsonian for 33 years, Charles began a private practice in 1971, which daughter Debbie worked to incorporate in 1983 as Olin Conservation Inc. At the height of his career he worked on more than 100 paintings a year, typically six days a week until the early-morning hours. While he remains president, son David, 42, has been vice president and head conservator since 1996. Debbie has a Ph.D. in psychology and is an adjunct professor and scientist-in-residence at American University, a neurotoxicologist at the Environmental Protection Agency, and the mother of three children.
Housed in a secluded wooded setting in Great Falls, Va., the Olin studio is studded with art in all stages of conservation. Some works are contemporary pieces damaged by water, fire or smoke. Other pieces are hundreds of years old, in need of analysis and restoration. Some projects have involved paintings from the private collections of old East Coast tycoon families, while others were world-famous Monets or Renoirs.
“The Phillips [Collection in Washington] brought me Monet’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party; they didn’t trust anyone but me to work on it,” says Charles.
Arrayed around the studio are displays of art, before the Olin treatment, and after.
Charles points to a portrait of James Monroe, owned by the City of Charleston and painted by Samuel F.B. Morse. “See how Monroe’s torso is twisted, his awkward stance and stark expression,” Charles says, indicating the portrait’s appearance when it was brought to him.
Previous repainting “to brighten the colors to make it ‘look good’ ” had distorted the original, Charles explains. “You have to know what is original and what is not.”
Referring to the post-restoration painting, he says, “Now you are looking at Monroe!” Charles notes that while he would never repaint an image, he often would do in-painting of cracks using paint that matched the original.
Over the years Charles wrote more than 4,500 reports on the paintings he restored. None have been published. “What I write about, people don’t want to make public,” he says. A museum or private client letting the world know that a painting wasn’t authentic would be like a woman proclaiming “that she has had five facelifts,” Charles says with a chuckle.
Today Charles leaves the major conservation work to David, while serving as a troubleshooter for the company. Plenty is still going on in the Great Falls studio, but David has been devoting most of his time since late 2003 to preserving and restoring the cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park. The $9 million federally financed project is part of a $95 million effort to build a new museum and visitors’ center, to be opened in 2008, rehabilitate parts of the battlefield and preserve the archives and artifacts.
The National Park Service and its private partner in the cyclorama project, the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, proclaims it to be the largest conservation project for a single painting ever done in North America.
The 360-degree painting—365 feet in circumference and 27 feet tall—recreates Pickett’s Charge, the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg. Paul Philippoteaux, a French painter, completed it in 1884.
It has been displayed, in a state of disrepair, in Gettysburg for decades but now is closed to the pubic as David Olin and his team work to clean the painting with cotton swabs, consolidate flaking paint and remove overpaint and a wax backing. Most challenging is restoring the original convex, hyperbolic shape that created a you-are-there perspective for its original viewers. “It’s not only conservation of a painting but restoring a Victorian illusion,” David explains.
While David’s team of 18 includes four conservators from Poland “who’ve done cyclorama work before,” he still relies on mom and dad, philosophically as well as literally.
“Charles is my conscience,” David says. “He says there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. He’s always been a real source for not letting me stray and cut corners. Charles and Jacque have set a standard we’re all charged to maintain as conservators.”
David, who grew up helping his father in their northern Virginia studio, earned a B.A. and an M.A. in art history from the University of Maryland. Though he took chemistry classes, he still consults the expert five to 10 times a month, he says. “I call my mother to ask about chemical structures. ‘What does that do?’ She throws it back at me, makes me think out my problems. As a consequence, I now call her less,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
While David admires Jacque’s scientific know-how, “Dad has the fine-art training I’m envious of. He was able to be an artist and had that love of science. He was able to bring the two together.”
His parents, he says, balance each other. “Charles is a dreamer, a visionary, while Jacque picks up the details.” Embodying some of their qualities and thriving on their encouragement has given David “the confidence to take on something like this,” he says, swirling his arm to indicate the massive painting in the round.
David’s assessment of their complementary natures is accurate, according to Charles. “I can visualize and perceive a problem, and she can analyze it. That’s a great combination. We work well on problems together.”
The problem that has absorbed them for several years is science illiteracy. Following on a lifetime interest in astronomy, in 1998 Charles founded the Analemma Society. Its 150 members meet regularly to discuss issues, such as ancient astronomy and navigation, that bring together the two cultures—science and the arts. The group now is developing a park in Fairfax County on a former Nike missile site and holds Friday-evening telescope viewings of the night sky in an old army observatory at the park. Next year the first of a planned 60 sundials will be installed.
The grand plan is to raise $10-$15 million for an international sundial park, educational facility and program “that addresses the problem of the lack of science education in the United States,” says Charles. Utilizing the observatory and the sundials, “children will gain knowledge of science and also learn about art through the shape and design of sundials as well as the art of locating oneself using the sun. With the park, Jacque and I are on the same page.”
Looking at his wife of 50 years he adds, “We have an intellectual understanding. I appreciate her approach to life.” In the Olins, the two cultures have met their match.
For more on Olin Conservation’s cyclorama restoration project, go to www.nps.gov/gett/gettprojects/cyclopres03.htm.