42nd Annual Meeting – Painting Session, May 30, "A Hangover, Part III: Thomas Couture's Supper After the Masked Ball"

Conservators are often faced with objects that have had extensive past treatments. While undertaken with the best intentions, some treatments have resulted in aesthetically jarring effects and loss of original information embedded in the construction of the work. Fiona Beckett explored these challenges of decision-making within the treatment of Thomas Couture’s Supper After the Masked Ball (1855).
The large painting is a depiction of a scene in the Maison d’Or in Paris following a party in the infamous hangout for artists and writers. The hungover revelers acted as vehicles for Couture’s commentary about the degradation of society’s morals. Although the composition was originally intended for use as a wall paper design, Couture seemed to have a soft-spot for this scene and the finished painted version was kept in his studio as illustrated by its numerous appearances in drawings and depictions of the studio space.

Thomas Couture's Supper After the Masked Ball (1855) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada
Thomas Couture’s Supper After the Masked Ball (1855)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada

Supper After the Masked Ball had undergone two linings and at least two cleaning treatments in the past. It had been relegated to storage for the last 90 years because of its problems. While one lining was done with glue paste the second used wax resin resulting in an uneven combination of the two residues on the verso of the canvas. Ms. Beckett described the factors that had to be considered before removal of the lining. Some of the effects from the lining treatments included wax residue stains, shrinkage of the canvas and compression tenting from the glue paste, and flattening caused by the irons. Additionally, Couture’s habit of testing tints of colors on the verso of his paintings was obscured by the lining’s presence. The condition of the lining was such that it had already began to separate fairly easily from the original canvas and it was decided, after determining that it was not appreciably stabilizing the painting, to remove it. After removal, the color tints were indeed visible on the verso of the canvas. Another interesting aspect of Ms. Beckett’s treatment was her use of Gellan Gum to locally moisten and soften the glue residues on the verso prior to mechanical removal with a spatula.
The decision to not re-line Supper After the Masked Ball followed the trend to refrain from re-lining, but was also informed by other factors specific to the painting. The original canvas was in good condition after the lining removal and the previous linings appeared to not have been necessary. The residual glue and wax residues seemed to have added strength to the canvas as well. Lastly, the absence of the lining allowed easy viewing of the brush marks on the verso.
Final steps in the treatment included a spray application of B-72 to the verso, strip lining with Lascaux P110 fabric and BEVA, and building up the face of the stretchers to an even surface with the addition of mat board and a felt-like non-woven polyester.
Supper After the Masked Ball was an excellent case study to illustrate the decision-making processes conservators must use when approaching prior extensive treatments. Ms. Beckett made an astute observation that it is quite easy for us to criticize these past treatments, but we must acknowledge that they were carried out with the intentions to preserve and stabilize using the most advanced technology available at the time. Often it’s the case that these linings and such really did have a positive effect on the preservation of the pictorial surface, although these measures need to sometimes be undone in the present day when we have less invasive and more effective processes available.