Monday, September 17, 2012

Featured Artifact: Thomas Sully Painting

A nationally treasured painting from the Museum’s storage collection may be going on loan to several destinations across the country.  The painting was surveyed by an art conservator to determine if it would be safe for travel in its current state.

The painting, a 30-inch by 25-inch oil on canvas by renowned 19th century American portraitist Thomas Sully, is entitled Washington and His Family.  Washington and His Family was completed by Sully in 1850 – 51 years after George Washington’s death.  The painting is in good condition and depicts George Washington, Martha Washington and Washington’s two step-grandchildren bidding him goodbye as he leaves for a trip.  In the background, two African servants assist Washington.  One servant holds Washington’s hat and coat, while the other brings over his horse.  In the right foreground of the painting is an English Springer Spaniel.

Thomas Sully was born in Horncastle, England in 1789.  He studied under Benjamin West in London and briefly under Gilbert Stuart while on a trip to Boston in 1809.  His portraits include John Quincy Adams, Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and Queen Victoria.  Although Sully is primarily known as a portraitist, his best known work is the large scale historical painting Passage of the Delaware.  The painting, which is over 17-feet wide, contributed to making Washington crossing the Delaware an American historical legend. 

Sully’s Washington and His Family was given to the Washington Association of New Jersey in 1915 by a private owner. Throughout the years it has had numerous cleanings and at least two relinings.  Records indicate that the painting appears to have been relined and treated around 1979. 

Back in August, Principal Conservator Daisy Craddock from Craddock Painting Conservation Inc. surveyed Washington and His Family to determine if the painting was in good condition for travel.  Once the painting’s frame was removed, Craddock examined the canvas under raking light.  Raking light involves illuminating the painting on an oblique angle to examine the painting’s topography for any damages.  This method monitors the effects of prior conservation intervention, makes it easier to see cupping paint (cup-like formations formed from aged paint that becomes loose from cracking and has curled edges), and enables uneven tension in a canvas to become visible.  While raking light, Craddock noticed cracks throughout the painting that were slightly raised, but stable.  She suggested these cracks continue to be monitored.
 Cracks appear when light is raked over the painting's surface.

The painting appeared to have a lot of retouching, which Craddock attributed possibly to varnish.  Since varnish fluoresces under ultraviolet light (UVL), she hovered UVL over the painting and noticed speckling on the top left corner from varnish residue.  Craddock said if varnish was removed the painting would appear more vivid.  Additionally, she noticed blanching along the paintings small raised cracks.  Blanching occurs when varnish has been damaged by water, degraded through age or partially dissolved with solvents and has a white, clouded appearance.  Since varnish is soluble in acetone, Craddock removed a small area of varnish with an acetone swab and noticed that retouching from prior conservators was done well. 
Craddock examines the painting under UVL.
Craddock swabs the varnish.

Overall, the painting was determined to be in good condition and the lining was intact.  However, the painting’s frame is in poor condition.  While examining the carved wood gilded frame, Craddock saw extensive stress cracking, active lifting and plaster losses.  Several frame fragments even broke loose prior to her visit.  A framer will need to be contacted before this valuable piece of Americana travels around the nation. 
Blog entry by volunteer, Maria Ribaudo.
Photos by volunteer, Steve Santucci.

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