Although Chicago may be without the standard layer of snow for this time of the year, we here are The Conservation Center are lucky enough to have beautiful images around to remind us of a pristine snowfall. A client recently brought in just such a painting, though it wasn’t quite the impeccable snow scene it once was. Years of grime build-up and thick, discolored varnish had turned the crisp white snowfall into a dingy, brown landscape. But with some time, patience, and careful chemistry, Senior Paintings Conservator Amber Smith was able to bring the original colors back to this Oak Park snow scene.
Artist Jess Hobby (1871-1938) was born on Long Island in New York, but moved west and later in life lived in Oak Park where he was a member of the Austin, Oak Park and River Forest Art League. This painting’s subject matter, a snow scene of an intersection in Oak Park, IL is a quintessential example of the artist’s work. However when it arrived at The Center the condition issues detracted from the subject matter. The glaring issue was of course, the yellow, discolored surface.
Upon closer examination, small areas of paint loss were also noted, mainly located in the perimeter of the painting. As there was no evidence of damage to the canvas, such as a dent or puncture, the losses were likely related to the presence of mechanical cracks in the paint layer; usually a result of the artists’s thick application of the paint. While most of the cracks were secure, areas surrounding the losses were not as stable. This is also typical if the canvas was under-bound, meaning that the ground (or primer) was insufficient to support the thickness of paint applied by the artist.
The first step in treatment was to secure the unstable cracks in the paint layer, to prevent any additional losses during the conservation of the painting. Next, the challenge was to find the correct chemical formula to remove both the discolored varnish layer and repaint - evidence of previous restoration campaigns - while leaving the original paint layer undisturbed. Once that was identified, the cleaning lead to dramatic results.
With the varnish layer removed, Amber was then able to address the paint losses. Using conservation grade fill material, she expertly filled the voids and texturized the material to mimic the surface of the original paint layer. The fill material is a neutral tone, but before adding any pigments, an initial layer of varnish was applied to the surface. This varnish layer, known as the isolating layer, serves just that function; to isolate the artists original paint from the pigments applied to the fill areas by the conservator. The conservation pigments are also specially designed to be detectable under ultraviolet light as another important method of separating the artist’s work from the conservator’s. Lastly, a second layer of varnish was applied to unify the sheen of the painting.
Conserved, this snow scene has changed from a dingy, depressing scene to a serene, quiet winter’s day. As Amber reflects, “the painting was so dark in appearance due to the heavy grime layers, thick varnishes, and heavy-handed repaint, it was a real treat seeing it returned to the original color palette.” Now back at home, the owner plans to gift this painting to family members who live near the intersection in Oak Park. Although the intersection may look differently today, this lovely painting will be a window to the past, and a wonderful snowy day.
What Do You Think?
Is this the intersection today? Oak Park has seen many changes over the years, but it seems we may have found the setting of this Oak Park snow scene.
Century of Progress exhibition by artists of Illinois. 1933.
“Jesse Carl Hobby” http://www.askart.com/