A Local Life: Ross Merrill, 67: Painter and National Gallery's chief of conservation

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"As Merrill removed accumulated grime and darkened varnish," a 1991 story in The Post recounted, new details emerged in the gigantic painting, which is 10 feet wide and 6 feet high. "He discovered a cook pot over a fire, then wagons, then a gypsy in a wagon. From under the trees beyond emerged a file of cows, and then a cowherd. On a distant hill Merrill uncovered a procession winding its way toward a church, then a clock on the church tower and finally that the time was 2 p.m."

Ross Mason Merrill was born May 30, 1943, in Abilene, Tex., and grew up in the Texas town of Breckenridge.

"My father was in sporting goods, and we were always outdoors," he told The Post in 1995. "It was an endless stream of fishing and hiking and tramping about."

When he wasn't outdoors, he was being introduced to culture by his mother: "There were always lessons - violin, piano, organ. But it was the art classes that stuck, the painting and sculpture."

At 19, Mr. Merrill headed to Philadelphia and studied painting for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After repairing his first paintings in Texas, he received a master's degree in fine-art conservation from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1974, then led the conservation department at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In 1977, Mr. Merrill won renown in the art world when he discovered that a painting attributed to Matthias Grunewald, a 15th- and 16th-century German artist, was a modern forgery. His Cleveland museum had paid more than $1 million for it, but Mr. Merrill's analysis of the painting's pigments proved that it was a fake.

After coming to Washington in 1981, Mr. Merrill was recognized as one of the world's foremost conservators and often spoke at international conferences. He retired in 2009 after learning that he had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow.

Mr. Merrill's first marriage, to Diane Brown, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 28 years, Alice McLaughlin Merrill of Mount Vernon; a son from his first marriage, David Merrill of Honolulu; a daughter from his second marriage, Ashley Johnson of Richmond; and a brother.

Even though he was at the top of a precise and demanding profession, Mr. Merrill still thought himself as an artist at heart.

"Though conservation work is fulfilling," he said in 1995, "painting is the most rewarding thing I've ever done."

He had a studio in Old Town Alexandria and often traveled on weekends to the Eastern Shore or set up his easel on the banks of the Potomac. He taught painting at the Art League of Alexandria for many years and often exhibited his artwork - most often impressionistic landscapes - at local galleries.

His paintings were twice featured on the cover of American Artist magazine, and he helped found the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association.

Wherever he went, Mr. Merrill always carried a small watercolor kit with him because he never knew when he'd find a scene that had to painted on the spot.

"It's demanding, painting on site," he said, "but it's what I do."

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