39th Annual Meeting – Paintings Morning Session, Friday June 3 – “A Soluble Problem: Morse’s ‘Gallery of the Louvre,’ Glazing, and Toning” by Lance Mayer

In his talk, Lance Mayer introduced “Gallery of the Louvre” by Samuel F.B. Morse and detailed the treatment and history of the painting.  The main condition problem with “Gallery of the Louvre” was the overall yellowed appearance caused by a discolored varnish and the extensive yellowing and darkening of the artist’s original glazes.  Almost preemptively, Lance discussed (and dismissed) the possibility of simply “thinning” the varnish, the choice of many paintings conservators in this situation—if the varnish cannot be safely removed in total, partial reduction of the coating may be possible without significantly effecting the layers below.  Lance showed examples of several treatments where he had been able to reduce or remove varnish coatings above sensitive paint layers that included wax and bitumen, but this approach was not feasible in this case.  Analysis of “Gallery of the Louvre” revealed mastic and some oil in the glaze layers, but it is not clear if this was due to the use of mastic varnish in the paint or the use of a megilp medium. There was no cleaning system that could distinguish between the overall varnish and the extensive glazing, and there were plenty of examples of previous cleaning tests which either removed glazes entirely or solubilized both the varnish and glaze layers and mixed the two together.  Several of the paintings depicted in the composition had been selectively cleaned previously, leaving the overall tonality of Morse’s painting out of balance with starkly overcleaned pictures hanging in the yellowed room.  In addition, there were areas of discolored retouching and several areas of reworked paint over large, flake losses.  Morse rolled the painting for transport from France and perhaps the painting stuck to itself—the retouching in these areas is thought to be by Morse himself because they are not well-defined and have a distinctly different appearance when compared to other restorations present.

This treatment and the problems presented fall into a grey area for conservators, and the goals for treatment were realigned accordingly—the goal after the thorough examination was not to clean the painting and remove materials, but rather to “undo” previous cleanings and restorations by adding materials to allow it to be read as a harmonious and coherent whole.

An overall grime layer was removed, and the painting was varnished overall with MS2A.  “Bright,” overcleaned areas were toned back, as were abrasions and selected craquelure, particularly in dark areas.  The flake losses thought to be repainted by Morse were not filled, and previous discolored retouchings were toned to blend with the surrounding areas.  The painting, while still yellow overall, is more harmonious after treatment and the compositional space is much easier to read, particularly the hallway that recedes into the background.

Lance concluded with some discussion of Morse’s techniques, citing his contemporaries who said Morse was too fond of process and often glazed paintings until they looked soiled.  Thomas Cole criticized Washingtion Allston, Morse’s teacher, saying “Those pictures which anticipate the beauties of time are pregnant with the seeds of decay,” which was true for Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” as well.