45th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, June 1, “What the Folk Happened to Kitty James and other Folk Tales” by Nina Roth-Wells

Nina Roth-Wells’ talk focused on a treatment that best embodies that crashing realization that you have much more work ahead of you than you’d planned on.

The misadventures of Kitty James started out innocently enough. The portrait, an 1822 work by Ezra Ames, was one of twenty-some early nineteenth century New England folk paintings which needed treatment before inclusion in an exhibition: Colby College Museum of Art’s A Useable Past: American Folk Art. Nina begins her talk by going through some more rote treatments from the same collection, a typical smattering of mends, cleaning, inpainting, and the occasional lining. With great pleasure, she explains how she was able to reverse a drastic restoration, thereby getting as close to the conservator’s dream of time-travel as we’re likely to reach: a canvas painting which had been attached to Masonite was removed and given a strip-lining instead.

Those treatments comprised the group of paintings Nina had selected on the criteria of needing both structural and aesthetic work. The rest were determined to be less complicated treatments and were scheduled to be completed onsite at the museum. She had initially categorized Kitty James in this second set, as it appeared to be an untreated 19th century work, requiring primarily surface cleaning.

Upon beginning surface cleaning, though, things started to go awry. The child’s hair was awfully soluble for how old the paint should have been, her sleeves seemed to be revealing different sleeves when cleaned, and the background was also coming up. The curator was quickly summoned. Artist revision was ruled out as it became clear the overpaint was done by a different, less experienced hand. In search of answers, Nina and the Colby College Museum of Art dragged Kitty James to the local hospital: specifically, the radiography department. This is where the audience learned that small town Maine x-ray technicians have experience working with art because they (or perhaps just this one curious soul) have experimented on duck decoys! The whole experience was both useful and joyful it seemed, as Nina expounded on the ease of digital x-rays compared to the analog procedures of her early training. There were lots of radiography tips, both in the talk and in the Q&A afterwards: suggestions to achieve the best low contrast results included setting the machine for a finger scan (2mAs at 60 KV), or to simply go straight to the mammography department. Nina, the equestrienne, reminded us city dwellers that large animal vets are also a good resource.

Of course, an x-ray is only as useful as the information it gives the conservator, and here it revealed that Kitty James had in fact been altered at some point, and the repainted image differed in the bodice and hairstyle, just as Nina had run into. Given this image of the original to work from, and with the agreement of the curator, a campaign to return poor Kitty to her initial visage was undertaken. A fair amount of overpaint removed cleanly, revealing original details and rewarding the conservator’s effort. The rest proved intractable—and frankly harmful to the original paint to try to remove—over parts of the sleeves and on her forehead where the overpaint hid her side-swept bangs. Thus, Nina’s job became to reconstitute both the original pageboy haircut and some semblance of period-appropriate sleeves from areas which included both original paint and overpaint. A happy medium for the sleeves required some research into 19th century baby clothes, and getting her hair right required several frustrated attempts which Nina characterized as ‘Justin Bieber’ and ‘Peppermint Patty.’ Though she expressed unease with how much of her own artistic interpretation was going into the final painting, the UV after treatment photo really demonstrated her restraint despite the extensive work needed to bring the painting together visually.

Thanks to research done while this painting was in treatment, there’s a possible explanation for Kitty’s new hairdo and wardrobe. In summary: there have been two Kittys in the James family, one (Catherine Margaret James) who would have been the right age for this 1822 portrait, and one (Katherine Barber James) who would have been the right age for the 1840’s fashion and hairstyle that were added in overpaint. The second Miss James was a prominent society lady, so the theory is that the family had the portrait altered to represent to more well-known relative.

All in all, the treatment was a wild ride, but Kitty James emerged safely with the original Kitty James reinstated.

Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference — Paintings Session, May 15th — "The Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — Rescue and Treatment" by Carolyn Tomkiewicz and Caitlin Breare

Carolyn Tomkiewicz’s presentation began with a photo of a modest statue of Mary in the garden of a local church. It had been wrapped up against the oncoming storm—not by conservators, but by mindful parishioners. This protection had more in common with how you shield a plant from frost than how a museum usually guards against damage, but their effort and conscientiousness was rewarded when the statue survived the flood unscathed, a reveal that Tomkiewicz ended the talk with. These photos opened and closed the talk as a demonstration of how a community’s response, as much as a conservator’s response, is vital to the protection of the art in their midst.
Tomkiewicz begins at Westbeth Artists Residence, where studios and storage spaces in the basement were swiftly subsumed by the nearby and overflowing Hudson. When the artists were granted access ten days later, the salvage efforts began immediately. The rescue team—composed of the artists themselves, volunteers from AIC-CERT (Collection Emergency Response Team), and local conservation studios—took over the building’s courtyard and turned it into a makeshift triage center. Salvage operations rely on ingenuity: the team MacGyvered door screens into paper drying racks, applied toilet paper as facing for damaged paintings, used puppy training pads as blotters, and when faced with the unappealing prospect of leaving art unattended overnight, they stored as much as they could in a rental truck that they could lock up. Gaining access to indoor spaces at Westbeth improved the security of the artwork. However, as triage operations continued, more and more objects were brought to the team to be treated. The extent of the work to be done in those first few days never seemed to diminish, but the crew pressed on, even addressing the residents’ personal items as well as their art.
The Westbeth example typified an important part of the success of the Sandy response: educating artists on triage procedures to save their own artwork. This education came through including artists in the conservator-led salvage efforts as well as many informational sessions—specifically a well-attended public presentation at MoMA—and online support forums and resources. That AIC-CERT’s involvement was assisted by private conservators, public museums, and even conservation vendors who donated supplies, was what really propelled the Sandy response to be come an example of effective salvage outreach. Of course, few places worldwide rival the level of cultural saturation as Manhattan, but even cities and towns without MoMA should be able to construct a scaled-down version of this type of unified response within the local arts community.
The opening of the Cultural Recovery Center (CRC) in Brooklyn, run by FAIC to provide in-depth treatment at a secure facility, was the culmination of the volunteer effort to restore art after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. Tomkiewicz discussed the treatment of three heavily deformed and flaking oil on canvas paintings at the CRC that required gradual-tensioning stretchers, humidity chambers, and a burnt-finger technique which utilized a lightbulb as the convex heat source. Given the type of damage Sandy left behind, she devoted special attention to the variety of ways to re-tension water distorted canvases, including Rigamonti stretchers and a “Gleitrahmen” (sliding frame) technique. Details of the treatments were published in the WAAC Newsletter Volume 35, Number 2 of May 2013, “A Tensioning Device for the Reduction of Severe Planar Distortions in Paintings,” by Carolyn Tomkiewicz.
She concluded her talk with the following advice: don’t store art in the basement in a flood zone!

Joint 44th AIC Annual Meeting and 42nd CAC-ACCR Annual Conference — Paintings Session, May 17th — "Using Web-Based Projects to Promote Conservation and Engage Diverse Audiences" by Kristin DeGhetaldi and Brian Baade

Thanks to museums that publicize our projects and the growing acceptance of on-site treatments, conservation is increasingly in the public eye. But these efforts can only reach so many people, and they tend to be temporary events or installations. Nowadays, we have a way to spread information to the interested reader, however far away they might be, and to archive information for far longer than is usually possible in the physical world. Thus, the question becomes: since knowledge can be disseminated and stored this way, if it can’t be accessed that way, does that research really exist?
Hence, the growing importance of a conservation project website.
First to be discussed is the Kress Technical Art History website (artcons.udel.edu/about/kress). The site approaches a discussion of conservation by focusing on an in-depth exploration of methods and techniques, built around the painting reconstructions completed by Kristin and Brian. Each reconstruction has a section of the website, with a different page for each layer of the painting, but they also have a physical life that also educates: The originals are distributed to museums along with pigment kits, to be used as didactic tools in museum galleries. The website has additional informational pages that cover historical materials and techniques, examination and scientific methods, a vocabulary primer, and links to other resources, including painting reconstructions done by other people. The depth of the website is frankly astounding, as every page seems to link to more detail and further research: from the Historical Methods/Techniques, you can click “inorganic pigments” and find a slideshow of the raw materials being prepared, a PDF of a chronological list of pigment usage, and a link to a video showing the extraction of lapis lazuli. Not only is this a valuable resource for anyone diving into historical painting techniques, but interested pre-programmers will find its resources invaluable for Winterthur’s “copy, reproduction or reconstruction” portfolio requirement.
The second project to be covered was the two-year conservation of the monumental Triumph of David at Villanova. The project’s website (thetriumphofdavid.com) combines not only a timeline of the treatment but a walkthrough of its restoration steps, in-depth reporting on the scientific analysis done, and the ability to view different stages of work and analysis as segments of the whole image. Kristin pointed out that while many institutions are wary of publicizing such sensitive information about the state of their artwork, the Triumph had literally no reputation to uphold: its original assessment had marked it as an insurance loss. The transparency of the Triumph project is refreshing: discussing the decision-making process behind each step and explaining current methodologies. The website is an experiment in laying out a painting’s history on the table, pointing out where there’s room for more research, and inviting the next participants to the table.
Kristin closed the talk with the introduction of MITRA (Materials Information and Technical Resource for Artists). Conceived as a revival of the much-missed AMIEN forum, it will connect artists, conservators, scientists, and educators to discuss best practices. As an interactive forum, hopefully it will become a well of expertise to draw upon when confronted with the misinformation that plagues much of the internet. Though the forum will initially focus on paintings, it will expand as it grows to cover a wide range of topics—wider than its predecessor—including contemporary art materials and concerns, textiles, sculpture, storage, murals, photography, and whatever else the public clamors for, I expect. It will be hosted by the University of Delaware when it is launched, hopefully in the Fall of 2016.

42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings, May 30, "Piet Mondrian: Technical Studies and Treatment" by Ana Martins, Associate Research Scientist, MoMA, and Cynthia Albertson, Assistant Conservator, MoMA

NYC’s Museum of Modern Art owns sixteen Piet Mondrian oil paintings, the most comprehensive collection in North America. From this starting point, conservator Cynthia Albertson and research scientist Ana Martins embarked on an impressive project, both in breadth and in consequence—an in-depth technical examination across all sixteen Mondrians. All examined paintings are fully documented, and the primary preservation goal is returning the artwork to the artist’s intended state. Paint instability in the artist’s later paintings will also be treated with insight from the technical examination.
The initial scope of the project focused on nondestructive analysis of MoMA’s sixteen oil paintings. As more questions arose, other collections and museum conservators were called upon to provide information on their Mondrians. Over 200 other paintings were consulted over the course of the project. Of special importance to the conservators were untreated Mondrians, as they could help answer questions about the artist’s original varnish choices and artist-modified frames. Mondrian’s technique of reworking areas of his own paintings was also under scrutiny, as it called into question whether newer paint on a canvas was his, or a restorer’s overpaint. Fortunately, the MoMA research team had a variety of technology at their disposal: X-Radiography, Reflectance Transformation Imaging, and X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy and XRF mapping were all tools referenced in the presentation.
The lecture discussed three paintings to provide an example of how preservation issues were addressed and how the research process revealed information on unstable paint layers in later Mondrian paintings. The paintings were Tableau no. 2 / Composition no. V (1914), Composition with Color Planes 5 (1917), and Composition C (1920), but for demonstration’s sake only the analysis of the earliest painting will be used as an example here.
Tableau no. 2 / Composition no. V (1914) was on a stretcher that was too thick, wax-lined, covered in a thick, glossy varnish, and had corrosion products along the tacking edges. Research identified the corrosion as accretions from a gold frame that the artist added for an exhibition. The painting has some obviously reworked areas, distinguished by dramatic variations in texture, and a painted-over signature; these changes are visible in the technical analysis. The same research that identified the source of the corrosion also explained that Mondrian reworked and resigned the painting for the exhibition. XRF mapping of the pigments, fillers, and additives provided an early baseline of materials to compare later works to, as the paint here did not exhibit the cracking of later examples. Ultimately, the restorer’s varnish was removed to return the paint surface to its intended matte appearance, and the wax lining was mechanically separated from the canvas with a specially produced Teflon spatula. Composition no. V (1914) was then strip-lined, and re-stretched to a more appropriate-width stretcher.
It is possible to create a timeline of Mondrian’s working methods with information gleaned from the technical examination of all three paintings. His technique had evolved from an overall matte surface, to variations in varnish glossiness between painted areas. XRF analysis demonstrated a shift in his palette, with the addition of vermillion, cobalt, and cadmium red in his later works. XRF also revealed that the artist used registration lines of zinc and lead whites mixed together and used on their own. Knowing the chemical composition of Mondrian’s paint is vital to understanding the nature of the cracking media and identifying techniques to preserve it.
The underpinning of all this research is documentation. This means both accounting for un-documented or poorly documented past restorations, as well as elaborating upon existing references. Many of the MoMA paintings had minimal photographic documentation, which hinders the ability of conservators to identify changes to the work over time. The wealth of information gathered by the conservation and research team remains within the museum’s internal database, but there are plans to expand access to the project’s data. Having already worked in collaboration with many Dutch museums for access to their Mondrian collections, it’s clear to the MoMA team how a compiled database of all their research and documentation would be groundbreaking for the conservation and art history fields.

42nd Annual Meeting – Paintings , May 30, “The Pied Piper of Hamlin: Color and Light in Maxfield Parrish in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco” by Harriet Irgang Alden, Director/Senior Paintings Conservator, ArtCareNYC/A Rustin Levenson Company

In the spring of 2013, San Franciscans were outraged to discover that a cherished Maxfield Parrish wall painting had been removed from its home in the Palace Hotel and sent to New York to be sold. Prior to auction, it was to be cleaned of the hundred-plus years of accumulated grime and accretions it had been subjected to while hanging in The Pied Piper Bar. Thus, even after the Palace Hotel had acquiesced to public sentiment and agreed to return it to San Francisco, the painting remained in New York to be treated.
Harriet Irgang Alden, of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates, had experience with other Parrish wall paintings, and knew the treatment concerns that were inherent to his working methods. The artist alternated thin transparent glazes of brilliant, unmixed pigments with saturating layers of varnish. This made the removal of a restorer’s varnish on a Parrish painting a fraught process that is typically not undertaken, because of the likelihood of disrupting the original layers. The planned treatment outcome only focused on grime removal. The immediate uniqueness of this Parrish wall painting was in the details of its construction. Despite its substantial size at 5 feet by 16 feet, the Pied Piper was not painted in sections, as Parrish’s other wall paintings were. The painting appeared to have been shipped rolled from the artist’s studio to San Francisco, where a stretcher was constructed for it—possibly of redwood due to the incredible length of the members. Additionally, the back of the original canvas remained visible, and displayed a ticking pattern similar to the canvas used for an 1895 Old King Cole painting. The unlined canvas, as well as the unique stretcher, provides new material evidence of Parrish’s working methods.
Unlike previous Parrish treatments, grime removal on the Pied Piper had revealed a broken varnish layer. Apart from thick brush drips and a pockmarked appearance, there were passages of flaking, which curiously did not reveal dull, unvarnished paint beneath. Instead, beneath the discolored upper varnish there appeared to be a clear, glossy layer of a different varnish, and beneath that were the brilliant blues typical to Parrish’s paintings. FTIR analysis at the Museum of Modern Art in New York verified that there were two distinct varnishes: the crumbling upper layer was an alkyd, and the lower a decolorized shellac. Alkyds like this alcohol-acid polymer were not produced prior to the 1920’s, so they could not have been original to Parrish’s 1909 Pied Piper. The decolorized shellac was stable and was still firmly adhered to the paint beneath. Both original layers had actually been protected from UV and bar patron damage by the alkyd addition.
After an aqueous cleaning removed the grime layer, the conservators were faced with an exciting prospect: could they remove the restorer’s varnish, and in doing so, reveal a pristine Maxfield Parrish painting? Solvents would penetrate through both layers and affect the pigment. A more complex process was tested: methyl cellulose in water was applied, and removed after five to ten minutes, to soften the alkyd layer. Though in initial attempts a scalpel was used, the conservators found that the softened alkyd varnish would lift easily and safely by being pulled up with tape using the ‘Texas Strappo’ method. This technique was successful, and revealed a brilliant and unharmed original varnish layer, but it was also incredibly time consuming.
The Palace Hotel declined to extend the treatment of the Pied Piper to include a months-long varnish removal. The alkyd removal test area was toned to blend back in, the painting was varnished with Regalrez, and the Pied Piper returned home. The non-original alkyd varnish remains, still degrading, but it continues to protect the pristine painting and original varnish beneath. In the future, it will be possible to remove the new Regalrez varnish with naphtha, which does not affect the original shellac varnish. It will also be possible to remove the alkyd layer with the solvent and mechanical methods outlined in the test, and revarnish with Regalrez, and possibly a UV stabilizer. Maxfield Parrish’s vibrant original may not be fully unveiled, but until then, the beloved painting is safely on display.