Preserving a Legacy: Conserving a Portrait of Marshall Field II

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At The Conservation Center, we treat items of material value, items of sentimental value, and, in the case of a portrait brought to us from the collection of Marshall Field V, sometimes both. Mr. Field has been an integral part of The Conservation Center since its inception in 1983, and his support has allowed The Center to offer over three decades of service to saving and preserving rare works of art, cultural artifacts, and personal heirlooms for future generations to enjoy and learn from. An avid fisherman, Mr. Field has a strong interest in conservation. He is active in various organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, The Everglades Foundation, and several other philanthropic institutions. The Field family historically helped shape Chicago, with a hand in merchandising, real estate, publishing, communications, and civic affairs. When given the opportunity to treat a portrait of Marshall Field II, we knew we were conserving a precious heirloom, not only for the Field family, but for Chicago.

The portrait before treatment .

The portrait before treatment.

After examining the painting in our laboratories after a slight shift of the work in its frame, our conservators noted that the painting, especially areas in the bottom quadrant, appeared to be unfinished. However, there was no clear explanation as to why that might be the case. To solve the mystery of why the painting remained in an unfinished state, our CEO, Heather Becker, spoke with Mr. Field. Heather has worked with Mr. Field for 30 years, since she first started at what was then The Chicago Conservation Center.

The painting removed from its frame for examination and treatment.

The painting removed from its frame for examination and treatment.

The unfinished areas at the bottom of the painting are visible.

The unfinished areas at the bottom of the painting are visible.

Mr. Field explained that around the turn of the century, his great-great-grandfather, Marshall Field I, had commissioned the artist Léon Bonnat to paint his own portrait, along with a portrait of his son, Marshall Field II. Bonnat was a successful painter with a thriving studio, and was an influential teacher, with students including Gustave Cailebotte, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and John Singer Sargent. In fact, John Singer Sargent would go on to paint many members of the Field family, including Mrs. Marshall Field III, which was featured at The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago’s special exhibit, John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age.

Evelyn Field, as sketched by John Singer Sargent.

Evelyn Field, as sketched by John Singer Sargent.

Around 1875, Bonnat began working on some of his best-known pieces, a series of portraits of prominent Europeans and Americans. Bonnat’s society portraiture is known for its photographic accuracy and subdued coloring, as evidenced in both Field portraits.

Marshall Field II died suddenly and under mysterious circumstances at just 37 years old in 1905. It’s amazing when someone who died so long ago can still garner so much attention in 2019, but to this day, the only thing the gossiping public agrees on is that the cause was a gunshot wound. Mr. Field confirmed that when its sitter passed away, the painting remained unfinished. It makes sense, then, that following his death, that portion of the commission was halted by Marshall Field I. So, while the portrait of Marshall Field I was completed, the portrait of Marshall Field II was later returned to the family, never to be finished by Bonnat. In fact, the unfinished quality of the work may be one of its most interesting aspects, serving as a tribute to its former sitter. The unfinished work allows us a glimpse into Bonnat’s process, a side of the artists style we’re rarely privileged to see otherwise.

To help preserve the painting for future generations, Mr. Field brought the work in for conservation treatment. He’d noticed subtle changes in the painting: the pigment had lifted, and the painting itself had shifted in its frame. It’s wise to get out ahead of issues like this before they become damaging – preventative conservation can ensure the safety of your collection. Our conservators surface cleaned the piece and consolidated the paint layer using conservation-grade materials. Inpainting was then carried out in areas of cracking using conservation paints, and a final coat of varnish was applied to the paint layer.

The painting’s frame also underwent cleaning in our Framing and Gilding Department, to ensure the painting would be maintained in its optimal state. The miters were stabilized and filled, and gesso and gilding losses were consolidated with conservation grade adhesives. The frame was then cleaned minimally, in order to carefully to leave the finish intact. The scratches and abrasions were inpainted to match the rest of the surface, rendering them invisible to the naked eye. Finally, losses to gilding were replaced, and the restorations were patinated to match the original look of the piece. A layer of wax sealed the work, the frame now conserved. 

The portrait of Marshall Field II, after finishing treatment.

The portrait of Marshall Field II, after finishing treatment.

After conservation treatment was complete, art handlers from our Shipping and Installation Department reinstalled the work. The work is housed in Mr. Field’s office, where portraits of Mr. Field’s great-great-grandfather, grandfather, and father hang. His own portrait was commissioned from the artist Richard Halstead, a nationally recognized portrait painter with work hanging in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. “All five of us are represented in my office,” Mr. Field noted.

Richard Halstead’s portrait of Marshall Field V.

Richard Halstead’s portrait of Marshall Field V.

The painting of Marshall Field I hanging in the office is the one painted by Bonnat. “There are three portraits of my great-great-grandfather. One hangs in the Field Museum, another at the Historical Society, and the third, the Bonnat, hangs in my office across from the one [of Marshal Field II] by the same artist.”

The paintings of the Fields hang in Mr. Field V’s office.

The paintings of the Fields hang in Mr. Field V’s office.

“The team at The Conservation Center did a splendid job,” said Field, “I’m very happy with the results.”

The Conservation Center feels privileged to have worked on pieces in Mr. Fields offices and in his private home, and looks forward to the continuation of the Field family legacy. “I’m grateful to personally experience the unwavering generosity Marshall has offered me in friendship and mentorship,” said Heather Becker, “and more broadly it is awesome to watch Marshall’s passion to preserve nature, wildlife, and art in action.”

The portrait of Marshall Field II has been conserved and returned to its rightful place.

The portrait of Marshall Field II has been conserved and returned to its rightful place.

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