AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Paintings Session, Thursday May 10, “A Chastened Splendor: The Study and Treatment of Works by H. Siddons Mowbray” by Cynthia Schwarz.

Schwarz paper outlined the extensive and complex treatment, carried out over four years, of 9 40 x 80” lunettes painted by Mowbray for Collis Huntington’s mansion in New York. After a thorough biography and outline of Mowbray’s artistic development, she moved into a description of the nine, brightly colored allegorical female muses depicted on the lunettes, which were originally adhered to Huntington’s walls with a thick layer of white lead paint.

In the 1920s when the mansion was demolished, the lunettes were removed from the walls (quite hastily) and given to Yale University Art Museum. Unfortunately they were rolled directly around stretcher bars and stored in a less than perfect environment, which, in combination with previous water damage and some mold, left the paintings in dire condition.

Technical analysis of the paint revealed other possible causes of paint loss. In his search for an absorbent yet flexible ground, Mowbray apparently added an aluminosilicate component (kaolin) to his ground layer, which has likely contributed to the current adhesion failure between the ground and paint layers.

One of the more interesting phenomena Schwarz discussed was the occurrence of bright orange fluorescence under UV radiation in some of the areas painted a mossy green color (but not everywhere). No varnish was present, and cross sections showed the fluorescence occuring only on the surface. SEM-EDS proved the paint layer to be a combination of viridian and cadmium, and Schwarz suggested that the fluorescence might be due to a reaction between cadmium sulfide and air, resulting in a cadmium sulfate. Apparently Aviva Burnstock has conducted research on this phenomenon at the Courtauld.

Questions following Scharz presentation focused on her strappo-inspired method of removing the lead white paint from the reverse of the canvases, which involved two layers of fabric strips and Beva 371 film. The paintings were lined onto aluminum honeycomb panels, to better mimic their originally presentation. The lining involved several layers, including a sacrificial layer to aid in reversing the lining. A nice diagram explained the lining stratigraphy, though I was not quick enough to note it. The paintings are currently on view in the galleries at Yale.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Paintings Session, Thursday May 10, “Comparison Between Two Identical Portraits of Fray Camilo Henriquez” by Monica Perez.

Perez’s talk focused on the comparison and resulting attributions of two painted portraits of Chile’s beloved Fray Camilo Henriques. She first detailed the history and importance of the sitter and the painting itself (this iconographic portrait was the source of most subsequent depictions of the sitter), and then went on to describe the painting and treatment of the version owned by the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile (National Library).

The painting hangs in the private office of the director of the National Library, so very few have ever seen it and most don’t even know of its existence. In fact, it was originally assumed to be the very popular and nearly identical version painted by José Guth, prominently displayed in the Museo Histórico Nacional, Santiago, Chile (National Hist. Museum). The Guth version was actually originally owned by the National Library until it was gifted to the National Hist. Museum in 1920.

These two identical paintings raised many questions, including whether they were both painted by Guth and which one was actually the original. Of course, both institutions believed they owned the original version. Perez was able to examine the National Hist. Museum’s painting along side the National Library’s for comparison’s sake. Infrared reflectography revealed a number of telling details, including numerous compositional changes in the National Hist. Museum’s painting, which the National Library’s version lacked, and cross section analysis revealed differences in the layering structures of the foreground and background in the two paintings. This and other evidence led Perez to hypothesize that the Museum owned the original painting by Guth, and the Library’s version was a later copy. Interestingly, the Library’s painting appears to have been copied from the Museum’s painting while still in its frame, as all four edges of the copy are cropped.

A loan agreement from 1960 revealed that the Museum lent their copy to the Library for a brief period of time, during which period Perez believes the Library may have commissioned a copy to be made. No artist attribution has been made for the Library’s copy, and, as usual, this research and discovery has sparked a whole new set of questions. Fortunately the discovery has not detracted from either institution’s opinion of their work, both of which remain prominently on view in their respective locations, and other scholars have taken up researching the questions surrounding the copy.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Paintings Session, Thursday May 10, “Discriminating Palettes: The Painting Materials of Clementine Hunter and her Imitator” by Joseph Barabe

The theme of the three talks in the PSG morning session on Thursday revolved around the need for a comparative approach to the examination of works of art. Joseph Barabe’s talk perhaps best exemplifies the benefits of examining a group of works by a single artist comparatively, an approach he used to ultimately disprove the authenticity of five paintings by the African American folk artist Clementine Hunter. This talk was quite exciting as it executed technical art history as forensic science resulting in the prosecution of William Toye (the forger), his wife Beryl Toye, and dealer Robert E. Lucky for mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud (a.k.a. forging and knowingly selling forged works of art).

The FBI Art Crime Team contacted McCrone Associates Inc. seeking authentication of five questionable paintings confiscated from the Toyes’ home. Barabe approached the task methodically, comparing the five paintings in question to five authentic works purchased directly from the artist, all from around the same time period. He also had one of Clementine Hunter’s palettes at his disposal, as well as paints confiscated from the Toyes’ studio.

Using a variety of examination and analytical techniques including visual examination with magnification, examination of cross sections, and analysis of samples using polarized light microscopy and infrared techniques including FTIR and Raman, Barabe was able to document very specific differences between the two groups of paintings. His visual examinations focused on the artist’s handling of her figures’ eyes and on her signature, revealing fundamental differences in approach between the group of authentic paintings and the group in question, as well as a marked difference in paint texture and opacity. He also found consistent underdrawing in the five originals, but not in the Toyes’ paintings.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery was the disparity in paint quality between the authentic Clementine Hunter paintings and the five in question. Clementine Hunter was the granddaughter of a slave and spent the majority of her life picking cotton at Melrose Plantation in Louisiana. She remained illiterate and was a self-taught painter, selling her paintings for as little as $0.25 in the beginning and frequently trading paintings for art supplies. Despite these obvious set backs, the paints analyzed on the authentic paintings proved to be of quite good quality. The paints found on Toyes’ paintings, however, were of significantly lesser quality, consisting of mostly student grade paints containing titanated lithopone and other fillers.

The inconsistencies in the materials and artist’s technique of the five paintings in question was enough to convince Barabe, and the FBI, that they were indeed fraudulent, and now the elderly (and quite eccentric) couple are paying the price.