Posts Tagged 'Painting Conservation'

Starting with a Blank Canvas: Preparing Steichen’s Rare Murals for Display

If you have wandered past the Barrel Vault Quadrant Galleries during the initial stages of the Edward Steichen: In Exaltation of Flowers conservation project, you likely saw a lot of beige—new stretchers, plain cotton-duck fabric, and backsides of paintings—and five women hammering, measuring, and stapling away. A handful of visitors have asked us what we are doing or if we are the artists, so we thought we should explain a bit about the initial and necessary steps in the conservation of these magnificent murals. While the most glamorous parts of conservation treatments are usually the final steps like inpainting and varnishing, the beginning of a project often includes a lot of preparatory work and a healthy amount of elbow grease, and it is just as important that we are precise in these first stages of treatment as we are in the final steps.

The seven large paintings that make up Steichen’s In Exaltation of Flowers were commissioned by Agnes and Eugene Meyer for their townhouse in Manhattan. Due to financial difficulties, however, the murals were never hung in their intended environment (read more of the history here). The paintings were shown as a set only once, in 1915 at the Knoedler Gallery in New York City, and have not been shown in a series since. Records indicate that two or three of the paintings were shown individually in exhibitions between 1915 and the present, and one painting arrived at the DMA already stretched. Aside from this, the paintings were stored rolled before coming to the DMA, accumulating dirt and dust for over 100 years.

Keara Teeter using a soft brush and vacuum attachment to remove dirt and dust from the reverse of a painting.

In order to help remove a century’s worth of grime, we vacuumed the reverse sides of each unstretched painting. This process is likely not what you are picturing; we don’t take the Dyson out of the closet and roll it over the canvas, wheels and all. Instead, we use a soft-bristle brush to sweep particulates into a vacuum attachment nozzle, with the vacuum on a low setting. When the painting is unstretched and on the (clean, paper-covered) floor, as these are, vacuuming can involve a bit of body contortion and a lot of ab muscles to ensure the nozzle and brush reach all areas of the canvas while the motor of the vacuum and our knees do not.

Six out of the seven paintings came to the DMA unstretched, and with their original stretchers nowhere to be found. Shiny new stretcher bars were ordered from Simon Liu, Inc. in New York, and it took all of our project interns to assemble six of these massive supports for the paintings.

Diana Hartman and Keara Teeter assembling a stretcher.

Once the stretchers were assembled, we created what is known as a loose lining. This involves attaching plain cotton-duck fabric to each stretcher, using canvas pliers and arm muscles to make sure each one is taut, and securing each one with staples. Later in the project, we will stretch Steichen’s paintings over these loose-lined stretchers, and the first layer of cotton-duck fabric will serve as a sort of bed for the paintings. Even though the canvases are in very good condition for being centenarians, they are somewhat weak where they have been folded over stretchers in the past, and the fibers have aged and become more brittle. The loose lining provides support and protection for the original canvas, and ensures that we do not have to pull hard on the original canvases to achieve planarity when they are stretched.

The next steps in our treatment will involve attaching edge linings to the original canvases, stretching the paintings over the loose linings, and performing some analysis with X-Ray Fluorescence in order to determine what elements are present. Stay tuned to learn more about these processes!

Pamela Johnson is a Conservation Intern at the DMA.

 

 

 

Painting Without the Point: Pissarro’s “Apple Harvest” Unvarnished

A long-time favorite in the DMA’s European galleries, Camille Pissarro’s Apple Harvest of 1888 has returned to view this month after a visit to the Painting Conservation Studio.

Camille Pissarro’s Apple Harvest (1888), on Mark Leonard’s easel, in the DMA’s Painting Conservation Studio

Camille Pissarro’s Apple Harvest (1888) on Mark Leonard’s easel in the DMA’s Painting Conservation Studio

Removal of the old varnish layer began at the right side of the picture, as is seen in this image taken during the cleaning process.  Soft cotton swabs and a mild organic solvent mixture were used to remove the discolored resin.

Removal of the old varnish layer began at the right side of the picture, as is seen in this image taken during the cleaning process. Soft cotton swabs and a mild organic solvent mixture were used to remove the discolored resin.

The painting, which has been at the Museum since 1955, is in very good condition, but it was brought to Chief Conservator Mark Leonard to determine whether it was in need of cleaning. He opened a small “cleaning window” along the right side of the canvas, removing the layer of protective varnish. The bright pigments revealed by this small test confirmed that the varnish had become dark and yellowed over the past half-century, masking the true colors of the painting. It needed to be removed. The painting was carefully cleaned and its original vibrant tonality has been rediscovered.

 

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Pissarro actually made three different paintings of this subject: a group of peasants gathering apples in the shade of an apple tree. The first version dates back to 1881, when Pissarro was one of the leaders of the impressionist group, and is painted in a classic impressionist style, with open brushwork describing the dappled sunlight that falls on the figures.

Camille Pissarro, Apple Picking, 1881, Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 21 ¼ in. (65 x 54 cm), Private Collection

Camille Pissarro, Apple Picking, 1881, oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 21 ¼ in. (65 x 54 cm), Private Collection

The same year, Pissarro started another, larger version of the subject, but did not complete it until 1886, when he showed it at the eighth and final impressionist exhibition.

 Camille Pissarro, Apple Picking, 1881-1886, oil on canvas, 49 5/8 x 50 in. (126 x 127 cm), Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

Camille Pissarro, Apple Picking, 1881-1886, oil on canvas, 49 5/8 x 50 in. (126 x 127 cm), Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, Japan

At that exhibition, Pissarro championed the participation of the young pointillist painters, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and Seurat showed his “manifesto painting,” A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte1884.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884-86, oil on canvas, 81 ¾ x 121 ¼ in. (207.5 x 308.1 cm), Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte—1884, 1884-86, oil on canvas, 81 ¾ x 121 ¼ in. (207.5 x 308.1 cm), Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection

Pissarro had recently adopted Seurat’s neo-impressionist method as the approach to painting that was “in harmony with our epoch” and an evolution from the older, “romantic” impressionism of artists like Monet. When he began work the next year on the DMA’s Apple Harvest, Pissarro was returning to a familiar subject, but armed with the new, “scientific” principles he had learned from Seurat.
Pissarro prepared the painting with a number of drawings, oil studies, and a full compositional watercolor, which he squared for transfer.

Camille Pissarro, Compositional study for Apple Harvest, c. 1888, watercolor on paper, 6 5/8 x 8 ½ in. (16.7 x 21.5 cm), Whereabouts unknown

Camille Pissarro, Compositional study for Apple Harvest, c. 1888, watercolor on paper, 6 5/8 x 8 ½ in. (16.7 x 21.5 cm), whereabouts unknown

In one drawing for the apple tree, Pissarro carefully noted the local colors he observed in the grass while sketching in the apple orchard: “yellowish red-orange,” “green,” “violet,” and “pink.”

Camille Pissarro, Study for Apple Harvest, c. 1888, graphite and colored pencil on beige paper, 7 x 9 in. (17.8 x 22.7 cm), The Eunice and Hal David Collection

Camille Pissarro, Study for Apple Harvest, c. 1888, graphite and colored pencil on beige paper, 7 x 9 in. (17.8 x 22.7 cm), The Eunice and Hal David Collection

In the final painting, these colors were evoked optically through a flurry of carefully selected and painstakingly applied flecks and dots of pure, unmixed color.

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest (Cuillette des pommes), 1888 (detail)

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest, 1888 (detail)

The pointillist method was a source of ongoing internal debate for Pissarro during these years. Despite his methodical preparatory studies, Pissarro placed a very high value on freedom and improvisation in painting. In September 1888, around the time he was completing work on Apple Harvest, he wrote to his son Lucien, a fellow neo-impressionist: “I am thinking a lot here about a way of producing without the point,” he reported. “How to attain the qualities of purity, of the simplicity of the point, and the thickness, the suppleness, the liberty, the spontaneity, the freshness of sensation of our impressionist art? That’s the question; it is much on my mind, for the point is thin, without consistency, diaphanous, more monotonous than simple.”

In Apple Harvest, Pissarro went to great lengths to avoid the monotony of pointillism, and his dots are surprisingly active and diverse, fracturing and curling to define form as well as color.

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest (Cuillette des pommes), 1888 (detail)

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest, 1888 (detail)

Robert Herbert, one of the great 20th-century historians of impressionism, described Pissarro’s complex approach to describing the deep shadow under the apple tree at the center foreground of the painting with a myriad of colored points: “The shadow has brilliant red, intense blue, intense green as well as pink, lavender, orange, some yellow, and subdued blues and greens. The pigments were not allowed to mix much together, and preserve their individuality which, because of the high intensity, results in an abrasive vibration in our eye that cannot be resolved into one tone. In order to make the contrast still sharper, Pissarro strengthens the blue around the edges of the shadow, a reaction provoked by the proximity of the strong sunlit field.”

 Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest (Cuillette des pommes), 1888 (detail)

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest, 1888 (detail)

By February of the next year, Pissarro informed his son that he was still “searching for a way to replace the points. Up until this moment, I haven’t found what I desire; the execution doesn’t seem to me to be quick enough and doesn’t respond simultaneously enough to sensation.” Pissarro sought nothing less than translating the immediacy of his optical sensations into the solid fact of paint on a canvas. Throughout the late 1880s, he was testing the capacity of the neo-impressionists’ methods to sustain this personal artistic goal.

Camille Pissarro taking his rolling easel outdoors to paint near his house in Éragny, France, c. 1895

Camille Pissarro taking his rolling easel outdoors to paint near his house in Éragny, France, c. 1895

The first critics who saw Apple Harvest in 1889 and 1890, when it was shown at important exhibitions in Brussels and Paris, were profoundly impressed with how Pissarro managed to convey the experience of sunlight using the pointillist approach. One early critic wrote, “Truly, the canvases of M. Pissarro are today painted with the sun.” Later writers have agreed, pointing out how Pissarro “directed the light so that it appears to radiate from the depths of the scene, to activate with color everything along its path and then to issue forth in to the viewer’s space.”

How, then, does the painting’s recent cleaning alter our understanding of Apple Harvest? For many decades, the painting has appeared more yellow than Pissarro intended because of the darkened layer of varnish on its surface. This change has no doubt influenced viewers of the painting who noted the “warm” palette of the canvas, which “positively throbs with the heat of a late summer’s afternoon.” The intensely sunlit effect of the painting was, it seems, given an additional golden glow by the amber hue of the darkened varnish. But, the dazzling luminosity of Apple Harvest—its “powerful fiat lux,” in the words of one early critic—was no accident of time. It was apparent to viewers as soon as the painting left Pissarro’s easel, and now, 125 years later, the painting’s brilliant colors and lighting effects have been restored to their original, white-hot intensity.

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest (Cuillette des pommes), 1888, oil on canvas, 24 x 29 1/8 in. (61 x 74 cm), Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund

Camille Pissarro, Apple Harvest, 1888, oil on canvas, 24 x 29 1/8 in. (61 x 74 cm), Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund

Celebrate Camille Pissarro’s birthday on July 10 with a visit to the newly conserved work on Level 2.

Heather MacDonald is The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art at the DMA.

Creating the DMA Conservation Studio

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In the summer of 2012, the Dallas Museum of Art began making plans to renovate the former Seventeen Seventeen Restaurant space and transform it into a new Paintings Conservation Studio as part of the Museum’s initiative to establish a more comprehensive in-house conservation program. Construction began in the fall of 2012, and the studio is now complete, as is the adjacent Conservation Gallery. This time-lapse film captures the building process, as seen from the vantage point of what is now a public gallery space.

The Paintings Conservation Studio features state-of-the-art technology—including a digital X-ray system—and will serve as a center for the study and treatment of works of art, as well as research into cutting-edge conservation methodologies. Brightened with natural light from new skylights and enclosed by glass walls, the studio’s design will allow visitors to observe daily activity, providing audiences with a singular behind-the-scenes experience. Activities in the studio also will be visible from both the Conservation Gallery and the adjacent outdoor Rose Family Sculpture Terrace.

The first exhibition in the gallery, Behind the Scenes, highlights the artists’ original materials and techniques, as well as the conservation histories of the works on display, exploring the various treatments they have undergone. This adjoining gallery will regularly rotate works, providing a space to explore the conservation process in greater detail through visual representations.

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Mark Leonard is the chief conservator at the DMA.

Breaking Ground

We “broke ground” today on the Museum’s new paintings conservation studio! The conservation studio is located on the top level of the DMA, near the south entrance, and will include a gallery space and sculpture courtyard (accessible to you!) designed by Samuel Anderson Architects (SAA). For the first time at the DMA, visitors will be able to see behind the scenes on a daily basis, watching artwork actively being conserved by the DMA’s first Chief Conservator, Mark Leonard. Construction is scheduled for completion this fall.

Check the DMA’s social media and Uncrated throughout the summer for updates on the construction of the conservation studio. Below are photos from today’s official first day of construction.

Wright windows removed Wright windows in storage  25 26


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