The conservation treatment of Severin Roesen’s Still Life, from the collection of Conner Prairie, is one of those very rewarding projects. The exquisite details of the painting were obscured beneath several layers of dirt, dust, soot, and heavily discolored natural resin varnish. The vibrant original colors appeared dull, dark, and hazy. The painting was a shadow of what it once had been, but those original colors and details were still there, just deeply buried. Removing all of those layers to once again reveal the beautiful colors of Roesen’s Still Life was not only rewarding to me as a conservator working behind the scenes, but it’s also rewarding to the visitor who now gets to enjoy the painting and all of its details and subtle colors.
Here is the painting in all its glory in the IMA’s Early American galleries. So what went on behind the scenes to get it here? About 85 hours of careful conservation work.
Conservation work always begins with a thorough examination. A conservator has to understand the layers of the materials that comprise the painting, and have an understanding of how those materials age and what sort of damage, if any, they incurred. In short, the examination breaks down the construction and condition for all the layers that make up the painting. Paintings are composite objects and include a variety of materials. For traditional oil paintings, these include a fabric support mounted to an auxiliary wooden stretcher or strainer, a ground or preparatory layer, paint layers, and a varnish layer.
Once the examination was complete, the first step was to address any structural issues. In the case of Roesen’s Still Life, there was a small tear in the canvas and there were some areas where the paint was actively flaking and several cracks in the paint that were unstable. The importance of addressing structural concerns is quite simple: you want to prevent further damage to the object.
Stabilization, or consolidation, involves the application of an adhesive to the areas of flaking or insecure paint. This is often done by adding the adhesive to the specific area with a small brush. The adhesive chosen depends on a great number of factors including the original materials for the painting, the strength of the adhesive, what solvent is necessary for the adhesive, and whether or not the adhesive needs to be heated during or after application, to name a few.
Once a painting is stable, the treatment stages that have a more aesthetic impact can be carried out. For the Roesen, this stage of treatment began with the removal of dirt and soot from the varnished surface of the painting. This was done with an aqueous solution with a slightly elevated pH that had the addition of chelators (that’s where the coursework in chemistry comes in handy).
Once the dirt and soot were removed, I was able to then remove the discolored natural resin varnish. This was done with a mixture of organic solvents that were selected after careful testing. Here, I’d like to recount that importance of that initial examination. The understanding of what the materials are that comprise the painting is paramount when carrying out a conservation treatment.
The visual effects that the layers of dirt and discolored varnish have on the appearance of the painting are quite dramatic. Those darkened and hazy layer not only affect the colors, but the tonal balance as well. The yellowed varnish made the painting appear very flat. This is especially noticeable in the pink flowers, as you can see in the images below.
After the layers of dirt, soot, and discolored varnish were removed, it was time to address those large undulation distortions in the canvas. This was done with controlled, local humidification. But first, the painting needed to temporarily be taken off its stretcher.
One of the common problems that cause bulges and distortions in the canvas is dirt and debris that becomes trapped between the stretcher bars and the canvas. Roesen’s Still Life was no exception. In fact, you can see what was behind the stretcher in the image below.
Debris, such as the organic materials found behind the stretcher on the Roesen, is very reactive to moisture. If exposed to high humidity, these materials will hold moisture for a long time, which can cause further distortions in the canvas and lead to cracking and flaking paint.
The dirt and debris were vacuumed from the reverse of the painting. After the vacuuming was complete, the localized humidity was carried out to remove the distortions. The distortions can have an effect on the structural stability of the many layers comprising the painting, but it also has a visual impact. The bulges can cast shadows and distort the spatial depth of the composition. Once the distortions were removed, the painting was re-stretched back onto its original stretcher.
After the application of a new coating of varnish, the compensation began. The painting was in relatively good condition. The areas that needed visual reintegration included the small tear in the lower left and areas where there were prominent cracks in the paint. There were small losses of paint surrounding the tear. These areas had to be filled to adjust the depth of the missing paint and ground. The fills are textured to match the surface of the surrounding original paint.
Inpainting is carried out with stable conservation colors and a very small brush. This stage of treatment is approached so that the materials and technique make the inpainting reversible. This is done mainly for ethical reasons, as highlighted in the AIC’s code of ethics and guidelines for practice. When inpainting, color is added only where the original is missing or damaged.
The treatment produced wonderful results, both structurally and visually. The cracked and flaking paint was secured and the undulation distortions in the canvas were reduced, making the painting stable structurally. So much original vibrancy and detail were reveal by removing the discoloring layers of dirt and yellowed varnish. Now the painting can be safely displayed and thoroughly enjoyed by our visitors.
Special thanks again to Conner Prairie for their long-term loan of this painting.
Click here to see the first conservation blog post about this treatment.