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Less is More

In late 2010, I had the pleasure of examining and conserving White Cloud by John Rogers Cox from the Swope Art Museum.  Not only was Cox an artist, but he was also the first director of the Swope.  Suffice it to say, White Cloud is an important painting to the Swope’s collection.   I’ve worked on a couple of paintings by Cox from the Swope and I have come to appreciate his work, from the barren feel of his landscapes to the tiny, precise details he incorporates.

This conservation project involved examining, understanding, and documenting an artist’s change and ultimately how far to take the conservation treatment.  This project also highlights the thought process surrounding certain conservation treatment choices, or in this case, the choice not to do something.

Looking, Observing, Understanding: The Examination Stage

Before treatment image of "White Cloud" by John Rogers Cox.

All conservation work begins with careful examination, the first stage of which includes just looking at the painting and noticing details from the surface, from the brush strokes in the paint, and from the support (yes, we spend lots of time looking at the back of the painting too).  If you don’t understand what’s there, then you can’t know how to perform the conservation treatment.  So with the painting in the IMA’s conservation lab, I began to look and observe.

The first thing I noticed was the artist’s signature.  The artist signed and dated the painting 1943, then it appears that he added a second date: RE. 1946.  I contacted Lisa Petrulis, the Swope’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions and she shared some of the research and literature regarding Cox, which tells an interesting story.

Detail of the signature and dates for "White Cloud."

There is written documentation that Cox was unhappy with aspects of White Cloud.  A 1952 article by Marilyn Robb in Art News, tells the story of how Cox sold the painting to Dr. Harold Laufman, then went to Laufman’s house and got permission to repaint it, changing a barn into a house and reworking the sky.

It was not uncommon for Cox to labor over his compositions and make changes throughout the painting process.  Cox described his process in the October 1951 issue of American Artist: “I hardly ever paint a picture the same way twice.  Sometimes I make sketches before starting, sometimes I draw directly on the canvas or panel and then paint, and sometimes I just begin to paint directly.”

In the same article, Cox described how he made changes during the painting process of a Southwestern-inspired setting, consisting of a boulder in a barren landscape:

“I did not stick with the original idea one hundred percent, but changed it constantly as I went along.  In this particular picture I painted out, or sanded off, four different skys and redesigned the boulder three or four times…..I worked on the painting at spasmodic intervals over a period of one year, laying it aside once for two months to do something else.”

Detail of "White Cloud," showing the house in lower right.

Rather than depict actual landscapes, most of Cox’s paintings are done from memory, which may be why he makes changes and spends so much time sorting out details of the composition throughout the painting process.

There were some obvious signs that the sky in White Cloud had been reworked.  There was a halo of a lighter blue paint surrounding the clouds, where the darker blue layer was painted up to the edges of the clouds, leaving that small bit of the underlying blue visible.  The underlying lighter blue layer was also visible at the edge of the painting.

Detail of the white clouds showing a halo of lighter blue paint below the darker blue paint that was applied later.

Detail of the right edge of the painting where the underlying layers of light blue paint for the sky are visible.

In general, the surface of the sky was uneven in texture—there were surface irregularities and slight indentations throughout.   These irregularities were underneath the top layers of paint.  Now the question was: did the artist rework the sky, or was the sky repainted during a previous restoration campaign?  It was likely a combination of both.

The first task was to get a better image of the artist’s change.  This was done with Infrared reflectography (IRR).

Overall IRR image of "White Cloud" showing the artist’s change in the lower right. The barn that had initially been painted in 1943 was changed into a Victorian revival-style house in 1946.

Detail of IRR showing the artist’s change made in 1946. The barn beneath the house is clearly legible.

To get another glimpse of what was going on beneath the surface, I used x-radiography to further document the artist’s change and to get a better idea of what was going on with the layers in the sky. Again, we get a clear look at the barn beneath the house.

Digital x-radiograph of the bottom right corner showing the underlying barn and extensive damages in the sky.

After seeing the old damages in the sky in the digital x-radiograph, other areas of the sky were x-rayed.  The x-radiograph below gives you an idea of how extensive the old damages.  Large areas of the sky appear to have flaked away at some point.  This raised more questions:

Were the damages caused by inherent vice of the artist’s materials and technique?  Was there poor adhesion between the paint layers that the artist initially applied?  Or perhaps, the environmental conditions that the painting was exposed to over the years were not ideal?

X-radiograph taken near the center of the painting to the right of the clouds in the sky. The darker areas to the right and below the clouds are old damages. These damages are currently covered by layers of overpaint, which is why the surface of the painting appears very uneven.

The examination report for White Cloud included a detailed description of the surface irregularities throughout the sky.  In general, the surface had undulating bumps and depressions and there were very glossy areas that appeared to be old retouching from previous restoration campaigns.  The artist was probably not the only one to rework the sky.  It is possible and likely that the entire sky was repainted during a previous restoration.  To further investigate all the layers of the sky more details scientific analysis, such as cross-section microscopy to look at the stratigraphy of the layers, would be necessary.

Other aspects of note in regards to the painting’s condition include the presence of small areas where the paint was cleaving and flaking, and prominent mechanical cracks in the foreground that exposed an underlying white ground layer.

If you look closely at the trunk of the tree on the left, you can see a small paint loss where the underlying blue paint is exposed (hint: it’s near the center of the trunk).

Next Step: The Conservation Treatment

With a good understanding of the structure, the conservation history, and the current state of the painting, conservation treatment could begin.  Not only did we have some questions about the many layers, damages, and reworkings of the sky, but there was also an exhibition deadline for the painting.  The Swope was lending it to the exhibition To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America.  The treatment proposal for this painting was relatively simple:

  1. Stabilize any areas of flaking paint.
  2. Clean the painting to remove any dirt, dust and soot from the varnished surface.
  3. Apply an additional varnish layer to even out the variation on surface gloss from the many retouchings and to adjust the gloss to make the surface irregularities less obvious.
  4. Inpaint the prominent mechanical cracks that were present throughout the foreground.

The treatment would mainly address aesthetic concerns, and in the future – should time and resources allow – a more in-depth scientific analysis of the sky could be carried out.

After stabilizing the flaking paint by adding an adhesive, the surface dirt was removed with an aqueous solution.  Removing this dirt layer reduced the hazy appearance of the painting.

An aqueous cleaning mixture was used to remove the dirt, dust, and soot from the varnished surface of the painting.

Now that the dirt was gone, the surface was ready for a new layer of varnish.  An overall varnish layer was applied to even out the surface gloss.  Then inpainting of the cracks began.

Painting Conservators use very small brushes for inpainting to ensure that only the areas of damage are covered with conservation paints. You can imagine the time it takes to get the work done. If you look at the specular light in the area of the sky, you can see the irregularities in the paint surface.

Given all the precise details in White Cloud, the mechanical cracks were visually distracting.  Once they were inpainted, the foreground was more cohesive and the spatial depth of the landscape was much improved.  See for yourself in the “After Treatment” image below.

Before treatment detail in the bottom right corner showing the diagonal mechanical cracks that exposed the underlying white ground layer.

After treatment, the colors appeared slightly brighter because the surface dirt and soot were removed, the colors more vivid because a new layer of varnish was applied, and the spatial depth was improved once the prominent mechanical cracks were carefully inpainted.

In the case of this conservation treatment, less was more.  For now, the painting is stable and leaving what is likely extensive overpaint in the sky intact makes it possible to further examine the layers present and make better decisions about future steps towards the conservation of this painting.  Delving into the overpaint removal would require a substantial amount of time, not only for the research stage of a more in-depth examination, but also the hands-on work of the conservation treatment.  For now, I was able to make some small aesthetic improvements and now the painting is on display for visitors to enjoy.

Filed under: Art, Conservation

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