43rd Annual Meeting – Painting Specialty Group, May 15, “The Treatment of Dr. William Hartigan by Gilbert Stuart or the Treatment of Gilbert Stuart by Dr. William Hartigan,” by Joanna Dunn

Joanna Dunn presented an engaging paper centered on the treatment, history, and analysis of a painting by Gilbert Stuart at the National Gallery of Art. I was particularly interested in hearing about this treatment in detail, having seen the portrait in the late stages of inpainting in the fall of 2014.
The work’s label tentatively proposes the identity of the sitter as Dr. William Hartigan(?), a doctor who apocryphally saved Stuart’s dominant arm after the artist sustained an injury. According to the narrative, after his recovery, Stuart painted the doctor’s portrait out of gratitude. Thereafter follows an entertaining history of the painting’s subsequent owners, ending with the work entering the collection of the National Gallery of Art in 1942.
During varnish and overpaint removal, an object resembling a large apothecary jar was partially revealed behind the sitter: the presence of the jar supports the identification of the subject as a man of medicine. This discovery prompted cross sectional analysis of paint samples from the work and sparked Dunn’s investigation into the nature of multiple copies after the painting. The analysis showed that the artist had partially painted over the apothecary jar, but it was unclear to what extent he would have intended the object to be completely hidden and whether its visibility would have been affected by past treatments or the increased translucency of the paint over time. Additional questions centered on whether the original format of the composition was oval or rectangular. The clues offered by three extant copies towards answering these lines of inquiry were unfortunately largely circumstantial.
In the end, the treatment needed to be completed, and Dunn chose the most logical and likely path in light of the gathered evidence: the apothecary jar was left partially visible, and the composition remained in an oval format. Given the number of options deliberated during the treatment of the portrait, this presentation fit most aptly within the theme of “Making Conservation Work.” The wordplay in the title of this talk and Dunn’s humorous tone when reflecting about the sheer number of factors to consider in carrying out this treatment complimented her content and underscored the oftentimes futility of efforts to determine an ideal or concrete solution in conservation.