42nd Annual Meeting –Paintings Session, May 29, 2014, “Conserving Spanish Colonial Paintings – Finding the Divine in Conservation," by Cynthia Lawrence

In this Thursday afternoon talk, Cynthia Lawrence presented an in-depth look into the materials and condition problems frequently present in Spanish colonial paintings.
Dating from Columbus through the nineteenth century, Spanish colonial paintings have generally entered collections in remarkably poor condition. Because these paintings have not been widely studied or exhibited, conservators have infrequently encountered them for treatment.
Paintings from this period often did not receive an original application of varnish, and as a result, dirt and debris are found directly in contact with the paint layer.  Interventions by early restorers included varnishing and consolidating with wax, resins, and synthetic materials overtop of dirt, resulting in painted surfaces with an obscured, uneven appearance.
The structures of the paintings were often complex. Wood, fabric, paper, and metal served as supports for the paintings. Compositions sometimes included shell inlays and fugitive cochineal reds painted over thin grounds. Some paintings were executed directly on a substrate without the use of a ground at all, and canvases were often affixed directly to the stretcher.
Cynthia showed slides and presented summaries for the treatment of several Spanish colonial paintings featuring divine narratives. She began by illustrating a treatment of a painting of St. Thomas on laid paper over wood that exhibited convex warping, vertical wood movement, planar deformations, paint loss, heavy grime, and a dark varnish. Cynthia’s treatment included consolidating with isinglass and attaching the paper to the panel with BEVA. She cleaned the surface with aqueous solutions and used a xylene mixture to remove the varnish. B-72 was applied to the break edges, which were clamped and weighted. The painting was varnished with MS2A prior to fills and inpainting, and Regalrez 1094 with a bit of wax was applied as a final varnish. After conservation, curators were able to positively attribute the painting to Gregorio Vásquez, a well-known Colombian painter of the Latin American Baroque period.
Cynthia also discussed several treatments in which she found a variety of materials layered over the divine subjects.
A collagen-based glue was found on the surface of one painting, while synthetic varnish, acrylic, PVA, wax, and natural resin varnishes were found overtop centuries of accumulated soot and grime on others. Due to the varied solubilities of these materials, Cynthia employed mechanical action, aqueous solutions, and solvent-based mixtures to remove dirt and incongruous materials.
For all of the paintings she treated, Cynthia discussed the importance of judicious inpainting. She inpainted the most noticeable areas of damage in order to maintain unity in the composition, but the paintings were not aesthetically compensated to appear new. Since many were used for devotional purposes, Cynthia stressed the appropriateness of preserving them in a way that was sympathetic to their original display.
Cynthia’s talk brings attention to the need for continued innovation in conservation treatment, and more research and scholarship on Spanish colonial paintings.  Spanish colonial paintings are often in such poor condition as to be deemed “lost causes” or “problem children” by conservators, but she cautions that conservators will likely begin to see paintings like these more, as museums and collectors seek out lesser known works.  As we work to understand these paintings better through treatment, analysis, and historical research, we will undoubtedly come to balance creative problem solving with the painting’s long life and history — it is here that we find the divine.
You can see pictures of some of the paintings Cynthia Lawrence treated in this article, and visit the New Mexico History Museum’s page  featuring an exhibition of these works, on view until March 2015.