42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 29, "Eclectic Materials and Techniques of American Painters: 1860-1910" by Lance Mayer and Gay Myers

Gay Myers, with the support of Lance Mayer, presented research on American artists gathered from primary sources including artists’ interviews, notebooks, letters, manuals, and suppliers’ catalogues, periodicals, and advertisements. Their presentation focused on a period when more Americans began traveling to Europe.
The influence of instruction from French academics like Thomas Couture (1815-1879) was particularly strong. The American painter Elizabeth Boott (1846-1888) wrote manuscripts about European techniques that delineated Couture’s studio instruction in Paris, William Morris Hunt’s (1824-1879) classes in Boston, and Frank Duveneck’s (1848-1919) practice in Munich. Couture advocated the method of painting thinly over brown underlayers (these paint layers become more transparent over time, and so, this method has sometimes led to problems). He influenced several nineteenth century American painters including Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). Hunt and his pupil Helen Knowlton (1832-1918) believed that caring too much about one’s technique was stifling. Duveneck employed large amounts of oil media in his paintings to achieve a “buttery” application and sealed his works with extremely glossy varnishes. Duveneck’s varnishes were so thick that the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who preferred light varnishes, advised others not to let “D” or any of his boys varnish their paintings.
The Art Amateur (1879–1903), an American magazine edited by Montague Marks (1847-1905), used the artists’ advice columns to document Thomas Dewing’s (1851-1938) use of matte varnishes, the growing popularity of the shellac-based Soehnée’s varnish as both a retouching and final varnish, and the early beginnings of the tempera revival in America. The American author Albert Abendschein (1860-1914) was among those in opposition to the tempura revival and has been quoted stating “the egg is more useful taken internally and kept out of the studio.” Abendschein instead advocated for indirect painting in which glazes are layered onto a monochromatic underpainting. In his 1906 book, The Secret of the Old Masters, Abendschein documented the growing tempura revival, commercially-produced paints containing wax, as well as other art trends.
J.G. Vibert (1840-1902), Edward Dufner (1872-1957), Mary Louise McLoughlin (1847-1939), and other significant members of the art community discussed varnishing practices, pigments, added media, and supplementary topics in a series of interviews conducted by DeWitt McClellan Lockman (1870-1957). The French author Vibert advocated a preference for petroleum solvents, and similarly, the American artist Dufner began using kerosene oil instead of turpentine because it dries without a glossy sheen. Dufner considered glossy surfaces so undesirable that he wrote on the verso of one of his paintings: “This picture being in a light key is meant to be matte surface and should never be varnished.” Vibert was also a staunch believer that lead white was not compatible with vermillion or cadmium and offered zinc white as an alternative. Concern about the toxicity of lead white also lead many artists, including McLoughlin, to start using zinc white. Since that time, technical analysis has confirmed zinc white is more prone to cracking than lead white.
This presentation effectively demonstrated the extent to which American painters experimented during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If you would like to learn more about the materials and techniques of American painters, Mayer and Myers have authored multiple publications including American Painters on Technique: The Colonial Period to 1860 (2011) and American Painters on Technique: 1860-1945 (2013).
American Painters on Technique
About the Speakers
Lance Mayer and Gay Myers graduated from the Oberlin College conservation program (1977 and 1978) and work as independent conservators to private collectors and public institutions including the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. The authors are fellows of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and have each served as chair of the AIC Paintings Specialty Group. They have collaborated on conservation and research projects for over thirty years, were awarded the Winterthur Advanced Research Fellowship (1999), Museum Scholars at the Getty Research Institute (2003), and College Art Association/Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction and Scholarship in Conservation (2013).