When an age-darkened portrait came to The Conservation Center for cleaning, our conservators knew there had to be something mysterious below the surface. The unframed piece of canvas featured an image of a young woman in clothing typical of the early 1800’s, though much of the detail was lost to dirt and grime. The stretcher the canvas was on appeared to have its original auxiliary support, though it was missing four out of the eight keys, and the canvas was slack with evidence of pulling throughout. The portrait seemed to be made from moderately applied oil paint. There were narrow cracks in the woman’s hair, collar, and sleeve, with impact and mechanical age–related cracks as well, though they seemed more secure. There were losses at the corner, and an abrasion in the lower right quadrant, as well as evidence of a previous restoration in the left eye, which was visible under a black light.
The client who owns this piece shared with us that it had been in a family home during the Civil War, and that to protect the piece during tenuous times, it had been cut from its frame.
Our conservator who treated the work, Michael Young, confirmed that the damage is indicative of being cut down from a larger painting. Most pieces, he explained, have raw or primed white tacking edges, but this portrait has extensive imagery on its edges. While unrecognizable, these painted edges show that it could have originally been part of a slightly more expansive work before it was cut down. Michael said that these images were painted over in a previous restoration, perhaps to hide that fact.
First things first: the start (and end) to every treatment is in-house photographic documentation. Next, the stretcher was keyed–out to make sure there was adequate tension for the canvas, and additional tacks were added. The corners of the canvas were consolidated using conservation grade adhesives.
The piece was then cleaned to remove grime, and the back of the painting was cleaned using a soft brush and vacuum.
The varnish layer was removed with solvents. The repainted areas, now discolored, were removed as safely as possible. Removing the varnish was a dramatic change, suddenly revealing beautiful hidden details that weren’t visible before.
The paint was then consolidated using adhesives, and a coat of varnish was applied to it to saturate it.
Inpainting was done in areas of loss and abrasion, using reversible conservation paints.
Finally, a coat of varnish was applied to integrate the surface gloss.
A coroplast backing board was attached to the reverse to provide additional protection, so that this portrait of a young woman could finally have a permanent home. “It’s a nice portrait in terms of execution,” said Michael, “it’s well done, it’s well painted.” Though we may never know the full story behind this work’s past, we’re honored to have been able to help conserve this unusual piece of history and help this mysterious portrait of a woman live on for generations.