A Local Life: Ross Merrill, 67: Painter and National Gallery's chief of conservation
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 10:01 PM
Ross Merrill never set out to be one of the world's great art conservators. Instead, he set out to be one of the world's great painters.
He began painting as a child in Texas, where he developed a love of the outdoors that would remain an important part of his life and his art. He had a natural flair for landscapes, which he preferred to paint "en plein air," or outdoors among the elements.
Over the years, Mr. Merrill had a steady career as an artist and painting teacher, but his early dreams of being the next Vincent Van Gogh or Edward Hopper never quite worked out.
"I had the arrogance of youth," he told The Washington Post in 1995. "I thought the world would recognize me as a great painter and come to my doorstep, but somehow that just didn't happen, and the insecurity of an unstable income finally got to me."
He went back to Texas to work at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Before long, he found a new way to make a name in the art world.
"Someone showed up with a damaged painting," he told The Post, "and I fixed it for him, simple as that."
Mr. Merrill later trained to be an art conservator and began a career that brought him to Washington in 1981 as the head conservator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art. Two years later, he became the museum's chief of conservation and built the department into one of the most respected groups of its kind in the world.
"What he did was amazing," Mervin Richard, Mr. Merrill's successor at the National Gallery, said last week. "He's one of the great conservators of the 20th century."
Mr. Merrill, who was 67 when he died Dec. 15 of multiple myeloma, at his home in the Mount Vernon section of Fairfax County, led the conservation department for 26 years.
In that time, he expanded the staff from 15 people to 55, with different groups specializing in the preservation and repair of paintings photographs, textiles, works on paper, sculptures and other objects. He also established a research department that made science a central part of the museum's efforts to understand the secrets of art.
Mr. Merrill spent much of his time managing his growing department, but few people had his expertise when examining the finer points of a painting. In 1995, he concluded that a 17th-century painting in the National Gallery's collection was not the masterpiece it was thought to have been. After a close analysis of paint chemistry and the weave of the canvas, he determined that the painting long attributed to Nicolas Poussin was, in fact, by another artist copying the French master's style.
In 1991, Mr. Merrill helped restore a monumental canvas from 1858, "Lake Lucerne," by the German-American painter Albert Bierstadt. When the National Gallery acquired the work, it had been sitting for decades in a house in Rhode Island and had not been seen in public for more than a century.