The Conservation of a Civil War Painting for Southern Illinois University

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of The Civil War. Like any thread in the fabric of our cultural heritage, this point in our collective memory was captured countless times by the artist’s eye. With photography still in its infancy, fine art and literature still serve as major artifacts for this defining time period in American history. While many of the artist’s names have been lost over the years, the importance of their work stands as a testament to this era. One of these remarkable works is a painting titled Steamboat U.S.S. Switzerland on River(artist and date unknown), belonging to our friends at The University Museum at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois. The museum recently engaged The Conservation Center to preserve this piece of Americana, and also taking the opportunity to educate its audience in the importance of art conservation.

Steamboat U.S.S. Switzerland on River was the first work chosen by the SIU museum director, Dona Bachman, to be conserved and exhibited as an educational tool in its gallery. While the painting itself is not well known, it is a beautiful example of 19th century landscape, displaying the powerful ship in motion down a well-travelled river. Steamboat U.S.S. Switzerland on River, painted by a Civil War veteran who served on the steamboat but whose name has been lost to history, was donated to The University Museum at SIU in 1938 by Carbondale native, Abbie R. Lawrence. Miss Lawrence’s father, John W. Lawrence, who had first acquired the painting, had also served along side the artist on the U.S.S. Switzerland as part of Company K of the 18th Illinois Infantry.

During the ship’s long tenure in the midst of the Civil War, it played a large part in the Union Army’s Ram fleet. As the name would suggest, the Ram Fleet’s job was to ram straight into the sides of Confederate supply ships in the hopes of sinking them. Built in 1854 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the U.S.S. Switzerland was a hulking 413-ton, side paddle-steamer towboat powered exclusively by coal. In the spring of 1862, the vessel was modified for use in the Union Army, as part of what would later be known as the Mississippi Marine Brigade. It was a command vessel, named flagship of the fleet, charged with traveling up the small creeks along the Mississippi River. By August 1864, the Ram Fleet had cleared the rivers of Confederate vessels, claiming a victory for the Union Army. Although decommissioned in late 1864, just before the peace treatise, the U.S.S. Switzerland continued to serve as merchant vessel in New Orleans until the 1870’s.

Already over a hundred years old, the painting depicting the U.S.S. Switzerland was more than a little worse for wear when it came to The Conservation Center for treatment. The entire surface of the paint layer was not secured to the canvas, and had already experienced multiple areas of loss ranging from 1/8 inch to well over two inches.  

Extreme flaking often occurs in paintings of this age, as they are often exposed to multiple strains and stresses. Frequently, as a canvas is exposed to various levels of changing humidity over time (which causes the canvas to both contract and expand), the paint layer actually detaches from the surface of the canvas, which is most likely what has occurred in the case of this oil painting. The areas exhibiting loss are where the paint has already detached from the original canvas completely and flaked away. The painting also appeared discolored due to a layer of grime and discolored varnish.

There was a large area of blanching across the center to the right of the canvas. Blanching, where water vapor embeds itself into either the varnish, or more rarely the paint layer, caused the appearance of the area to appear white. With all of these issues identified, The Center’s paintings conservator was able to tackle them head on to astounding affect.

Due to the severity of the flaking, especially around the edges, the paint layer had to be consolidated in order to stabilize it prior to undertaking any additional steps. After testing, an archival, heat-activated adhesive was charged with the mission of securing the paint back on to the original canvas. After applying the adhesive, a hot air tool, about the size of a pencil, was used to carefully direct a fine point of air on to areas of lifting paint. In conjunction with magnification and a special silicon-tipped brush, our conservator was able to consolidate the remaining paint layer by slowly and painstakingly moving across the entire surface of the painting with these tools—re-adhering the flakes of paint little by little, piece by piece. 

After this arduous job was completed, the painting could now be cleaned. The surface had a thick layer of grime that had since become embedded into the discolored, natural resin varnish that had been originally applied to the canvas. The layer of yellowed varnish also contained some overpaint, which is indicative of restorative work done at some point during the painting’s long history. Both of these layers were carefully removed, which took care of the areas affected by blanching. A remarkable turnaround can clearly be noted after this massive consolidation and the cleaning of the surface.

To prevent any deterioration or flaking in the future, the canvas was then relined to prepared linen with conservation adhesives. This guarantees the structural stability and consolidates the paint layer, while additionally helping to reduce deformations in the canvas. Our conservators typically try to avoid lining paintings because at The Center, we prefer to be as minimally invasive as possible. However, this particular painting needed the additional support, and relining was determined to be the best option for the piece. The original stretcher was preserved, though some small modifications were made to ensure it could be keyed out properly in all directions. This allows the paintings conservator to ensure the canvas is adequately tensioned. The hardware and backing board were also replaced with archival-grade materials.

Finally, to wrap up the project, a few more problem areas on the painting had to be addressed in order to deliver a finished project to the university. First, areas of loss were filled with a conservation-grade fill material in order to level out the surface of the painting. A suitable synthetic varnish, with similar properties and saturation to the natural varnish originally used, was applied to the surface of the painting. Due to severe paint loss, selective inpainting was applied in order to preserve the visual integrity of the piece. All of the newly applied pigments are completely reversible and easily identifiable under UV-light, ensuring that the originality of the piece is completely preserved. Finally, after a final spray of varnish, the project was complete. Although the frame was not treated, all of the original wood and materials were preserved.

U.S.S. Switzerland on River now proudly stands on display at The University Museum at Southern Illinois University. And, in an effort to educate their students on the benefits and different treatment options available for damaged or decaying works of art, the museum’s 70,000 piece collection—including historical, ethnographic, and geological artifacts—will be under consideration for conservation efforts over the coming years. 

"We are very pleased with the work done by The Conservation Center. We hope it will inspire donors to assist with future conservation projects,” said Dona Bachman, Director of The University Museum at Southern Illinois University. “Now that The U.S.S. Switzerland is restored, we have a wonderful Civil War era painting with many local collections. With the conservation, the painting has become a work of art we can exhibit with pride."

Though art conservation can be time consuming and exacting, this example will stand as a continued effort to educate others on the importance of cultural preservation and the responsibilities of the stewardship of our nation’s treasured objects. The Conservation Center is proud to play an essential role in this massive undertaking.

Photo credit: Alison Erazmus