On the final day of specialty group presentations at AIC’s Chicago meeting, Tiarna Doherty, Chief of Conservation at the Lunder Conservation Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), rewarded attendees with a lovely presentation about the singular artist Romaine Brooks. The Smithsonian Renwick Gallery mounted the exhibition “The Art of Romaine Brooks” in 2016, and Doherty examined over 30 paintings by Brooks in preparation, many of which were featured in the show. Weaving into a captivating story Brooks’s biography, aesthetic preferences, and technical practices, Doherty also conveyed the rationale for her practical conservation approach in response to how the paintings have altered over time.
Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) is known for her stunning portraits, often featuring friends who were leading figures in the arts and humanities at the time. Born in Italy but raised in New York, Brooks’s father left when she was young, and her mother was not supportive of Brooks’s artistic pursuits. From 1890-1900, she lived in Capri with many other ex-patriots with non-traditional lifestyles; the location was a refuge following Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trials in London. Brooks met her husband in Capri, but their marriage was unsuccessful in no small part because he disapproved of her preference for masculine attire. She eventually settled in Paris in 1905. Her unpublished autobiography, which she illustrated with drawings, was titled “No Pleasant Memories.”
Brooks recorded very little about her aesthetic preferences or artistic technique, leaving only her artistic output and a few historic photographs to fill in the blanks. Her painting technique reveals some academic knowledge, though she may not have had formal training. Chalk lines and colored ground layers, such as the salmon orange preparatory layer in The Charwoman (1904), were followed by thin washes of paint and numerous glazes composed of her own mixture of oil and resin. She often used oil paint to reinforce contours on top of natural resin varnish layers to create the final surface. Painted black dashes, and in one case silver dashes, define the outer boundaries of many paintings.
In addition to painting and drawing, Brooks demonstrated an innovative attentiveness to interior design. Frame design and surface finish were clearly a consideration in her pursuit of Whistler-influenced harmony of color and tone. In one example from Doherty’s presentation, Brooks had a particular frame with a large rabbet in mind when planning a painting’s composition, as she painted the canvas only where it would show within the frame window. In another example, both the painting and the frame had a black ground layer visible beneath the finished surface – such efforts earned the accolades of “reigning in harmony” in a 1910 exhibition review.
Not surprisingly, the natural resin-containing layers of Brooks’s paintings have darkened over time. Brooks herself may even have seen the changes begin, as she chose to keep most of her paintings until her death. The presence of glazes and varnish in alternating layers with original oil paint make conservation especially challenging. In addition, conservators at SAAM observed that later applications of Paraloid® B-72, now getting cloudy, were difficult to remove safely due to sensitivity of the original materials beneath. Treatment goals leading up to the Smithsonian’s exhibition were therefore a combination minimal intervention and passive technology. When possible, degraded varnishes were reduced and surfaces resaturated. To restore some of the original cooler tonality, gallery lighting was employed to virtually compensate for some of the current altered appearance.
Doherty reminded us of Oscar Wilde’s relevant words from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, that “some things are more precious because they don’t last long.” But a conservator does what she can. This careful study of an artist and her technique led to both a thoughtful approach for displaying Brooks’s paintings, aged but still striking; as well as this transmission of her harmonious original vision.