The three faces of Andrew: Successive treatments of an 1819 terracotta bust

Virginia N. Naudé


The sculpture of Andrew Jackson by William Rush, exhibited In Philadelphia In 1819, was lost when the Rush Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened in 1982. During the show, the original bust emerged from the attic of a local historical society and was authenticated on stylistic and technical grounds. Microscopy yielded evidence, from underneath the patchwork of over paint and paint loss, that the bust had been painted white soon after it was made.

The first conservation treatment was started for the historical society which had held the flaking, but structurally sound sculpture in storage for many years. Brittle, cracked paint residue was removed; saving the original white layer was not feasible because the approximately eight layers (seven white and a final black) were tightly bonded and lifted off In thick pieces. After most of the paint had been removed mechanically, some was removed chemically, but the owners accepted scattered, tenuous patches of former surface coatings. The surface was lightly cleaned with organic solvents; minor chips and stains were accepted.

By the time the treatment that had prepared Jackson to return to the historical society was complete, the quality and value of this unique American sculpture was apparent, and the owners decided to auction the bust In New York. A decision to sell the sculpture led to reconsideration of its appearance and, shortly, to a request of the conservator to recreate the original, white, painted surface that was the sculptor’s preference circa 1819. The ethical considerations of recreating a new, painted surface were based on collaborative discussions between curators and conservators two years earlier, when numerous wood carvings, originally painted white by William Rush and stripped in the 1920’s, were repainted. A barrier coating of polyvinyl alcohol was applied to the terracotta surface and one coat of Magna acrylic paint from Bocour was applied to match spots of original paint. White was used with small amounts of raw sienna and ultramarine blue.

The bust fetched a record price at auction for an American sculpture, but was soon sent back to the conservation laboratory by the new owner, the Art Institute of Chicago. The recent coating was removed and a more thorough cleaning of the terracotta surface was carried out under the direction of the curator. Ingrained grime and deeply set stains were removed by immersion in a series of water baths. Analysis of water samples was carried out by the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. The surface appearance was unified dramatically by the treatment. Minimal cosmetic work was carried out. The bust is now well lighted in the galleries where the visitor can sense the presence of a strong historical personality and appreciate the sculptor’s skill; the technically curious can also see fabrication details and evidence of the sculpture’s treatment history.

1989 | Cincinnati