I Can See Clearly Now: Bringing a Family Heirloom Painting Back to Life

French painter Jean-François Millet

French painter Jean-François Millet

When The Conservation Center encounters an heirloom piece that has extraordinary sentimental value to our client, we always like to learn more about its history and the meaning of the piece for the family. Recently, Mary Anne Keane brought us a reproduction of Jean-François Millet’s (1814–1875) The Angelus that was on display in her living room. “Ever since my childhood, I’ve always had fond memories of this painting hanging in my grandparents’, and eventually my parents’ home,” said Mary Anne. “After inheriting The Angelus, I realized if I didn’t take good care of the artwork now, though it had made it a century so far, it would not be around much longer for my family to appreciate.” Mary Anne also began investigating its provenance to better understand the origin of the piece.

Catherine McAuley (1778–1841), founder of Sisters of Mercy

Catherine McAuley (1778–1841), founder of Sisters of Mercy

After reaching out to various aunts and uncles, Mary Anne was able to figure out that the Millet reproduction had actually been given to her great-great-grandparents as a gift—not her grandparents as originally thought—by way of the Sisters of Mercy, an Irish Catholic nunnery dating back to 1831. Considering her family history, Mary Anne realized that she was finally on the right track, as her great-grand-aunt was a Sister of Mercy and friends of the artist. Reaching out to the organization directly, she was able to get the name of a nun, Sister Marcella Kavanaugh (1882–1955), who was known to be an artist with a degree in art from Creighton University, but not known to have ever created a body of work. While it would have been extremely unusual for a nun to be able to explore creative pursuits, considering the seriousness of the vows taken at the Sisters of Mercy, the timeline for the piece and Sister Kavanaugh’s tenure seemed to align. With all of this information confirming the age of the piece, and considering its fragile state, Mary Anne decided to bring the oil painting into The Conservation Center for immediate treatment. 

Sister Kavanaugh’s painting is a faithful version of French artist Jean-François Millet’s original The Angelus, which is housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The Angelus, completed in 1859, depicts two peasants praying over a bowl of potatoes, with the bells of Chailly-en-Bière tolling in the background. This painting of the blessing of the harvest stands as a perfect testament to the Barbizon school in rural France, of which Millet played a fundamental part. Stemming from both the Romantic and Realist movements in France, the Barbizon aimed to depict pastoral and natural scenes utilizing soft tones and light brushstrokes. Millet, in particular, depicted peasants as a sort of social commentary, in which those marginalized were often shown in the midst of hard work as the focus of his large-scale paintings. Their faces, though normally hidden, represent every man (or woman) in that they are deserving of attention and admiration.

Created almost a century later, Sister Kavanaugh’s reproduction of The Angelus stands as a true-to-form reiteration of the original, as it aptly captures the tonality and feel of the first. It was clear that the painting needed our attention: upon examination, our conservators found a few issues. Due to years of dirt buildup and a family member’s nicotine habit, the name and date of the painting were almost imperceptible—you could barely detect the year “1916” on the lower right side.

In addition, the canvas had also sustained multiple areas of impact over the years, and as a result, the painting was severely cracked. These so-called “sigmoid cracks” appear similar to tree trunk rings or cobwebs on the back of the canvas, and they may not become visible for a period of time after the damage occurs. In addition, Sister Kavanaugh had laid down a very thick layer of paint for the background, combined with a thin layer of paint making up the detail of the foreground. In order for the background paint to evaporate and dry, it physically had to break through the thinner, upper layer—leading to significant cracking throughout the piece. The varnish had also been applied unevenly. This, combined with the layer of grime, resulted in an unsightly matte appearance that washed out the depth of detail and color in the piece.

The Center’s Paintings Conservator, Kendra Fuller, addressed all of these issues and more. First, the canvas was keyed out so that it was properly tensioned on the support, essential to the planarity of the canvas. The surface of the piece was then cleaned of all dirt and grime and varnish was removed, so that the fissures from the sigmoid cracks and drying cracks could be consolidated. Using conservation-grade adhesives, we were able to stabilize the flaking paint back onto the original canvas, preventing major losses in the future. Next, the painting was given a brand new coat of varnish. As the layers of the paint were of varying thickness, so were the layers of varnish. In areas where the varnish had unevenly saturated the painting, Kendra was able to bring up the gloss uniformly across the piece, thus ridding it of the matte-look that was hiding the intense colors of this landscape reproduction. 

After a thorough cleaning and removal of the varnish layer, the painting sprung back to life. The signature of the artist and the date of the work were also properly revealed—confirming the owner’s historical inquiries into the origin of the piece.

Sister Kavanaugh's signature: before (left) and after (right)

Sister Kavanaugh's signature: before (left) and after (right)

“The painting looks marvelous…I am incredibly touched,” said Mary Anne. “We can finally see the meticulous details and the colors of the prairie scene. I am now experiencing this painting with the same clarity as my great-great-grandparents when they first received the piece. I am grateful for the level of care that my painting was given at The Conservation Center.” It means so much to us when we can share such an amazing successful conservation treatment story.

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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