Michael O’Malley gave a fascinating talk about describing the investigation he undertook on a painting he had treated in 1998, which resulted in an attribution. His determination to uncover the mysteries of the posthumous Portrait of Mére Catherine de Saint-Augustin, a 17th Century Carmelite nun beatified in 1989 was piqued by hints given by materials analysis undertaken during the treatment of the painting; it suggested a good opportunity to the conservator to open a conservation dialog with art historians. As no interest was evident in the subject in the years since the treatment, Michael later took it upon himself to do a little digging of his own, “I’m not an art historian but I can read”, he humorously, if modestly, stated!
Michael began his talk with an overview of the Conservation Center of Quebec which sounds like a superb facility which appears to have a great community outreach and interaction with allied professionals including training, tours and bilingual publications.
Michael described the treatment of the painting, the article he wrote for the
Journal of Canadian Art History, the analysis that was conducted at CCI and the
additional research he completed to arrive at his attribution.
The unsigned and undated portrait of the nun, according to oral tradition, had been painted at her deathbed and had been attributed to Hugh Pommier (1636- 1686) a priest and artist that lived in the colony at the time. Mére Catherine de Saint-Augustin (1632-1688) was revered figure in New France and was considered to be the founder of the Catholic Church there. She was first a nurse then the keeper and director general of the hospital of the French colony.
The painting had undergone at least two restorations in the past, one by a nun who had been charged with the task of making Catherine look, “younger with a more cheerful appearance”! The painting had been glue lined, heavily overpainted and coated with a natural resin varnish. The treatment included lining reversal and relining, varnish and overpaint removal and loss compensation. After cleaning, the face had renewed subtlety; evident cracquelure, the original greyish-blue tone.
Stylistically the painting appeared to be of European origin. Eminent art historian Gerard Morisset Gerard Morisset (1898-1973) placed painting in an inventory of paintings in Quebec parishes and churches. As early as 1936 he had noted a stylistic resemblance to works by Claude Francois aka, Frère Luc (1614-1685), a student of Simon Vouet and an influential artist in New France. The artist had returned to his mother country, however by the date of the nun’s death. Morisset saw the painting in the 1950’s at which time the background had already been overpainted. In 1960 Morisset had made a connection with a painting of St. Claire in an altarpiece by Frère Luc. He saw similarities with paintings of the two nuns and other similarities in the naturalistic qualities of other faces by Frère Luc as well as similarities in the treatment of the landscape elements.
Cross section and pigment analysis conducted at CCI by scientists Marie Claude Corbiel and Elizabeth Moffatt revealed a double ground layer, consistent with grounds used in France in the 17th Century (The author referred to Elaine Du Val’s publication on red grounds in 17 C France.) and lead tin yellow which placed the painting prior to 1750.
O’Malley did further study of 17th C Carmelite portraits. He learned that Catherine’s death was described in the annuals of the day. Because the date of
her death was not consistent with Frère Luc having been documented as being in
New France, he hypothesize that the painting was not, in fact, a true portrait but a commemoration; his attribution, when published, was well received.
Michael O’Malley’s work nicely demonstrates a situation when a professional must “cross the aisle” to an allied profession when information gleaned in our work demands to be researched and shared to the benefit of all.