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Rediscovering America

Our guest blogger today is Morgan Hayes, graduate summer intern in the IMA’s Paintings Conservation Department from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Morgan joined Linda Witkowski, IMA Senior Conservator of Paintings and project manager, and Christina Milton O’Connell, IMA Associate Conservator of Paintings, for the summer to complete the treatment of "America" by Leon Reni-Mel at the National Headquarters for the American Legion.

The National Headquarters for the American Legion lies deep in the heart of the Midwest, right here in Indianapolis.  Not exactly the first place I would expect to find an early 20th century painting by the French artist, Léon Reni-Mel.  Not knowing what to expect inside the formidable, austere building, I was somewhat surprised to find a quiet office space full of friendly staff, a small museum of military artifacts, and a grand meeting hall with a desk for each state’s representatives; the latter being home to the America painting, which has hung on the wall of the main stage for the past 90 years or so.  My daily walk to our workspace includes a trip down a long hallway flanked by countless photographs of past National Commanders and officials from as early as 1919, the legion’s inaugural year.  It is a daily reminder of the deep history and singular culture that this organization and its members have lived through.

Walk to work at the American Legion National Headquarters.

Another amazing glimpse into the history of this project was through the incredible collection of letters and archival material that has been preserved since the early 1900’s.  I was privy to primary source materials written directly by Reni-Mel and various officials of the legion, including rare footage of the artist painting America in his studio in France.

Now onto the project:  The painting, America, was created in 1918 by the French Ministry of War Painter, Léon Reni-Mel, and given to the American Legion for the United States’ assistance to France during the Great World War.  The canvas is 12’ x 7’ and depicts two allegorical soldiers, one stalwart American raising his hand to halt the enemy while assisting the other, a wounded Frenchman about to collapse.  The soldiers stand on a bank of highly textured mud with smoke and flames rising around them in the distance, blending slowly into the swirling colors of the sky.  At the bottom of the canvas, Reni-Mel gave the work its own caption, AMERICA, flanked by the signatures of two honorary National Commanders, General John Pershing of the United States Army and Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French Minister of War.  Reni-Mel’s signature and the date of completion were also added at the lower left and right.  The painting has very high impasto, giving the work incredible texture and depth, but making the cleaning process even more challenging!

Detail of textural, high impasto paint surface.

Upon first sight, it was obvious that the painting was covered with a thick coating of darkened yellow varnish.  A quick glance at the meeting hall and the sea of desks topped with permanently affixed ashtrays gave the clear indication that this painting was dulled by decades of nicotine, grime, and aged varnish.  Upon closer investigation, it was also apparent that there had been a previous campaign of cleaning.  Throughout the sky and areas of the French soldier’s face and torso, the paint had been scrubbed so hard that in some areas the weave of the canvas was clearly visible. The note card attached to the stretcher bars confirmed the previous restoration treatment (done in the ’90s) and even detailed the type of varnish used at that time to coat it.  Even with all this observed knowledge, a thorough bout of solvent testing was done in multiple areas to find the most effective and safest cleaning solutions for this painting.

Detail of abraded paint from previous cleaning treatment.

And so our slow siege began, moving across the canvas inch by inch, adjusting solvents and changing application techniques to suit each specific area.  As we worked our way across the complex surface, I began to understand how one must constantly be reading what you see, know how to react to the given information, and be able to move forward even when that means leaving it alone.  The difference between the cleaned painting and the grimy, varnish-covered painting was so dramatic that staff members from down the hall were continually seeing aspects of the composition for the first time as had originally been intended!

During treatment, about halfway through cleaning and varnish reduction.

In the archives I came across a letter from Reni-Mel, himself, warning the recipients to allow the thick paint to dry for at least a year before varnishing (with the amount of paint he used – it should have been much longer).  This is done so there will be two separate layers (varnish on top of paint) instead of two layers without any distinct boundary between them (which is what happens when the paint isn’t fully dry).  This co-mingled area is referred to as the “interactive zone,” and can be quite the challenge for conservators since we would like to remove the varnish, but obviously not the paint.  I suspect this is what caused the previous cleaning to come to a halt when only partially complete, leaving the lower two thirds of the surface untouched before adding yet another coating of varnish overall.

I am happy to report that after about 200 hours of work, the conservation project is at mid-stage with the painting having been successfully cleaned and the discolored varnish substantially reduced.  Because of the blending between the paint and the initial varnish, it was best to “unpack” the varnish little by little until only a thin coating remained and the paint film was left with a protective buffering layer.  This delicate balance was maintained with close and constant observation, an understanding of the surface of the painting, and daily examination in ultraviolet light.

Next up, we’ll be moving on to the structural work, inpainting and varnishing, as well as the framing and re-installation of America…check back at the Indianapolis Museum of Art blog for the next chapter!  Also, look for an article at the American Legion webpage for more information regarding this great project.

After cleaning, me, Christina, and Linda (left to right).

Filed under: Art, Conservation

8 Responses to “Rediscovering America”

  • avatar
    Joyce Hill Stoner Says:

    this is GREAT– thanks for doing this! Best, Joyce

  • avatar
    Tim Says:

    It’s good that you were able to get such positive results. You’re a lot more patient than I ever could be. Sometimes I visit clients who want something reframed and ask me to “give it a cleaning”…and as soon as I hear the word cleaning (if it’s more than gently blowing off dust) I send them on to a conservator. I’m sure eventually I could learn how to do it, but I’d never enjoy it, even after a great result such as what you’ve been able to achieve.

    So thanks to you and the other art conservators of the world, you make our lives easier!

  • avatar
    Nina Olsson Says:

    Thank you for sharing, Morgan! This looks ultra interesting.

  • avatar
    Jon hayes Says:

    Very very cool to see what and learn how you do what you do.
    Love Jon and Deb

  • avatar
    Aunt Kathy Says:

    This reads like a fascinating mystery novel! Thank you for the thoughtful insight into the painstaking work you do. You look so happy, and I am so glad you’ve found work that you love – what a joy. I’ll keep checking your blogs through Linda.
    Wishing you all of the best.
    Aloha, Kathy.

  • avatar
    Ruby Says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog from start to finish. Not only do you produce thoughtful work but you’re a fantastic writer! Keep me posted:)

  • avatar
    Serge RENI-MEL Says:

    I am deeply grateful to the American Legion and to the restoration team for the fidelity to this outstanding allegory of friendship between our countries.
    As heir of the works, rights and memory of this artist (1893-1984), I hold his complete archives and keep in safety series of american and european paintings and graphics. As professional curator, I just engaged the task for a complete critical catalog of his works.
    Leon RENI-MEL was elected an honour citizen of the U.S.A. by the will of President W.Wilson, and settled permanently in NYC from 1921 to 1937. During this period, for living, he portrayed skillfully the high society, and traveled from Canada to Louisiana, including Colorado and New Mexico, to sketch landscapes and genre paintings, as well as tremendous indian figures.

  • avatar
    Gayle Cook Says:

    I have a copy of this painting printed by Zeese-Wilkinson Co., Inc., New York; Copyright 1922 by Reni-Mel, Bory Osso, Agent. The copy is a little dirty as it had been in my parents’ NJ basement for probably 20 years until I got it in the early 1970s. I don’t know who in my family got it originally, but it was among the items that I wanted when my parents were relocating after retirement.

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