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Preserving a legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals

Imagine its 1916, and you’re lying ill in the city hospital.  Surrounding you are aisles of other hospital beds full of other patients.  As you suffer with a fever, you stare at the sterile, blank hospital walls.  If you were fortunate enough to be in Indianapolis, that city hospital would have been what is today Wishard Memorial Hospital.  Idyllic landscapes, groups of children playing, and portraits would have adorned the walls.  The soft colors and soothing images would have encouraged your healing process.

Clifton Wheeler Women and Children

Clifton Wheeler, Women and Children. 39" x 70". Photograph by Tad Fruits.

Between 1914 and 1916 thirty-three murals were painted by Hoosier artists to promote healing at Wishard Hospital.  Many of the murals have been lost or damaged over time.  The IMA has been working on the conservation of many of the surviving murals since 2003.  The IMA will host an exhibition Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals that showcases 13 of the surviving murals at various stages of conservation and a portrait of Dr. Wishard painted by T.C. Steele in 1924.  The exhibition runs from January 17, 2009-March 31, 2009.

Throughout the decades the Burdsal building where the paintings were located sustained structural problems and several water leaks damaged the murals.  In 1967, the murals underwent a restoration attempt where several of the paintings were removed from the walls.  The process of removing the murals caused several damages and tears that were subsequently covered by excessive filling and overpainting.  Some of the murals that remained on the walls are now covered under several layers of wall paint.

Small traces of covered murals are still evident in the Burdsal building.  The texture from the original paint or the canvas slightly translates through the subsequent layers of wall paint.  In the image below Linda Witkowski, Senior Conservator of Paintings at the IMA, points out the underlying texture from one of the covered murals still on the wall in the Burdsal building of Wishard Hospital.  This area of the covered mural appears to be the legs of a figure, probably a child since so many of the murals depict children.

3rd floor Burdsal building

3rd floor Burdsal building

If you look closely at this detail image of the same area, you might be able to see it too.

Closer look

Closer look

It may be hard to see since the texture is so faint.  In the image below, the rough outline for the figure has been sketched out in blue.

Outlined in blue

Outlined in blue

The wear and tear of the Burdsal building even affected the layers of wall paint and in some areas those layers peeled away to reveal small glimpses of the underlying murals. In the image below, Anne Emison Wishard points to flaking wall paint that covers one of the wall murals in the Burdsal building.  Above Anne’s hand, a foot from one of the figures in the murals is visible.

3rd floor of Burdsal building

3rd floor of Burdsal building

The largest visible portion of the murals in the Burdsal building is an area that was once covered by a bank of storage lockers.  The lockers protected it from the layers of wall paint that were applied to the rest of the walls.  We counted at least three layers of wall paint that were applied on top of the murals: blue, cream, and green.

3rd floor of Burdsal building

3rd floor of Burdsal building

The IMA’s conservation efforts to date have mainly focused on the murals that were removed from the walls during the 1967 restoration attempt.  The conservation work completed by IMA conservators has included the careful removal of heavy layers of dirt and discolored varnish from the surface of the paintings, removal of the heavy overpaint and excessive filling, and careful inpainting to reintegrate the damages.  For a glimpse of the step by step conservation process of the murals, please visit the IMA’s flickr account for T.C. Steele’s Autumn Landscape, Red Trees.

In the image below, Linda Witkowski is beginning the varnish removal of Carl C. Graf’s painting The Three Muses.  This painting will be a rare treat for visitors to the Wishard mural exhibition.  The painting will be shown in various stages of conservation: one portion of the painting will be left in the before treatment stage with all the layers of dirt, discolored varnish, and heavy overpaint; the central area of the painting will be cleaned to remove those layers so that the damages can be seen; and the right side of the painting will show the completed stages of conservation with the damages carefully inpainted.

During treatment of Autumn Landscape, Red Trees by T.C. Steele

Detail of Three Muses by Carl C. Graf

The conservation treatment of the murals has shown a dramatic transformation: the original colors of the paintings were revealed from underneath the discolored layers of dirt and yellowed varnish and surviving areas of original paint were uncovered from under the heavy overpaint that not only disguised the old damages, but extended several inches beyond the damages.  The image below shows the careful removal of the extensive fill material from T.C. Steele’s Autumn Landscape, Red Trees, which extended over an area of original paint.

During treatment detail of Autumn Landscape, Red Trees by T.C. Steele

During treatment detail of Autumn Landscape, Red Trees by T.C. Steele

The images below highlight the conservation treatment of T.C. Steele’s Autumn Landscape, Yellow Trees.  The yellowed varnish not only obscured the colors of the painting, but it also flattened out the depth of the composition.  The heavy overpaint throughout the foreground covered the cast shadows the artist used to depict the nearby trees in the landscape.  The overpaint was so heavily and extensively applied, that it even covered the damaged remnants of the artist’s signature.

The conservation treatment of the Wishard murals has been a long and intensive process.  Without this careful work, the murals would not have survived as they do today, for future generations to enjoy.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Exhibitions

6 Responses to “Preserving a legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals”

  • avatar

    Thanks for this fascinating look at the restoration job.

    It sounds like the hospital just painted over the murals at some point? That’s unfortunate, but often the value is only visible in hindsight. I recently drywalled over a brick wall, I’m sure creating buried treasure for a future occupant. I can already see it now: what the heck was that moron thinking when he drywalled over this awesome exposed brick?

  • avatar
    Lindsey Says:

    Great job Christina!

  • avatar
    Christina Milton O'Connell Says:

    Thanks for your interest in the blog on the Wishard Hospital murals. At this point, we can only speculate as to why the murals were painted over (there is still an opportunity for research on this). Over time, the murals accumulated dirt and showed general signs of wear and tear, so they no longer appeared as the new brightly colored images they once were. In some cases, the rooms were likely repurposed. If you also consider the changes in the word of art through the early 20th-century, then the idea that the images fell out of style becomes another potential reason.

  • avatar
    Amy Says:

    Really fascinating. I love the before and after photos. It really makes one appreciate all of the meticulous work put into restoring a piece of art.

  • avatar

    The long and intensive process of the conservation treatment of the Wishard murals was really a job well done.

  • avatar
    Rico Suave Says:

    The “Outline in Blue” above caught my eye – so many of those have resulted in a trip to the Wiz ER over the years.

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