Thursday, March 1, 2018

Washington and His Family Return

Washington and His Family, pre-conservation.

In 2012 Washington and His Family (1850), painted by Thomas Sully, underwent a conservation report here at Morristown National Historical Park in order to prepare the portrait to go on loan. A brief history of the painting and the process of determining its condition can be found here. 

The work that was done in 2012 did not end up leading to any stabilizing conservation at that time, and thus the painting was left in the collections. But as we know time marches ever on, and the painting has since required more attention. The fact that the painting and frame are in need of restoration should come as a surprise to none as it is close to 220 years old. Such an aged painting with such a historic subject certainly deserves conservation in order for future generations to view and learn from it. Thus, in late 2017 the painting was sent away for restorative work.

Here the painting is shown under UV examination. 
The blue areas indicate layers of original varnish.

But before we get into the details of this restoration let us first discuss a key term. In this context, conservation refers to the restoration of a work of art in such a way that the essence of the painting is not lost, nor has its original style been altered. Conservation work is all about diagnosing deterioration issues and remedying them in a way that will cause the least amount of future stress. This task requires a professional with extensive knowledge of art history as well as a chemistry background in order to best analyze and make decisions based on a painting’s past, present, and future. Now that we understand the goal of art conservation let’s get into the details of the conservation report and what was done to restore Washington and his Family. 

After the use of various techniques designed to determine condition and past restorative actions, the painting was removed from its frame and lightly cleaned with a natural enzyme meant to eliminate built up dirt and grime. It was then rinsed with distilled water and sprayed with acryloid B-72, which is a flexible, non-yellowing varnish commonly used in restorative work. The back was dust vacuumed and the green duct tape applied in the late 1960s was removed. Next, a technique called inpainting was utilized to touch up areas where paint had flaked away over time. This technique aims to be true to the original artist’s painting style and to seamlessly integrate with the artwork.  Another layer of adhesive varnish was applied and the painting was rinsed again. 

Close up of the frame before conservation.

As for the frame, which, of the two components was in worse condition, the same adhesive spray used on the painting was used here to fix parts of the frame that were lifting and broken. MNHP had sent the painting away with a small bag of bits that had fallen off, and through the course of the condition report it was determined that many came from past restorative work. Therefore, only broken pieces that were original to the frame itself were reapplied. Inpainting was done to the gold finish of the frame and all hanging hardware was replaced.  As the old label was falling off it was removed and placed in a Maylar envelope and reattached to the back. Once the cleaned painting was reframed it was returned to us here at MNHP. Finally it was securely placed in our artwork collection storage.   

The newly conserved painting.

Conservation is vital to the continued display of a painting as well as its continued use as a historic artifact from which we can glean knowledge from the past. It is how we preserve the only images that we have for future generations to enjoy. 

This blog entry by Pamela Russo, Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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