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Antwerp in Indy — Part One

Part one in a series of blog posts on the ongoing examination and treatment of two paintings on loan to the IMA from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

Maerten van Heemskerck, "Portrait of a Man," Oil on wood panel. Photograph taken by Aaron Steele.

Maerten van Heemskerck, “Portrait of a Man,” oil on wood panel. Photograph by Aaron Steele.

Maarten van Heemskerck’s Portrait of a Man and Gerrit Berkheyde’s View of Dam Square and the Amsterdam Town Hall have come to Indianapolis for a visit.  The IMA has the unique and wonderful opportunity to display these two paintings from the Dutch collection of Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) until 2017 while the KMSKA is closed for renovation.

Gerrit Adriaensz Berkheyde, "The “Dam” in Amsterdam (Dam Square and the AmsterdamTown Hall)," oil on canvas. Photograph taken by Aaron Steele.

Gerrit Adriaensz Berkheyde, “The “Dam” in Amsterdam (Dam Square and the AmsterdamTown Hall),” oil on canvas. Photograph by Aaron Steele.

What is especially exciting about this loan is the exchange of conservation expertise for the privilege of borrowing and displaying these paintings. While at the IMA, the paintings will undergo technical examination and conservation treatment.  This includes analysis with infrared reflectography to study preparatory layers and x-radiography to further study preparatory layers and look at old damages. It’s a wonderful opportunity for IMA conservators to collaborate with international colleagues.

Both paintings are covered with layers of dirt, yellowed varnish, as well as old, discolored re-touchings and overpaint. The overall conservation process will involve carefully removing those discolored layers, applying a new and non-yellowing varnish, and carefully inpainting areas of damage to reintegrate the compositions.

Detail of the lower right corner of the Berkheyde cityscape showing darkened and discolored patches of retouching and overpaint in the foreground.  Photo by Aaron Steele.

Detail of the lower right corner of the Berkheyde cityscape showing darkened and discolored patches of retouching and overpaint in the foreground. Photo by Aaron Steele.

The conservation process will take approximately nine months for each painting. We would like to thank Nico Van Hout and Lizet Klaassen from KMSKA for their expertise and collaboration.


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.

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Severin Roesen: Conserved

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.

The painting installed in the IMA’s Early American Galleries.

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Conservation Treatment of Severin Roesen Painting

The IMA has partnered with the Conner Prairie Museum for the long term loan of a Severin Roesen still life painting. In exchange for the loan, the painting is undergoing conservation treatment at the IMA. The treatment will be completed so that the painting can hang in the IMA’s American Galleries by June 2010.

Overall, the painting is in relatively good condition. There is one minor damage, a small tear in the left side, and some areas where cracks in the paint are unstable. Aesthetically, the painting is obscured by heavy layers of dirt, soot, and discolored varnish. Underneath those layers lie the delicate flowers with glistening dew drops for which Roesen is so well known.

The treatment will be completed so that the painting can hang in the IMA’s Early American Gallery by June 2010.

Before treatment the dull, hazy, and darkened appearance is the result of many decades’ worth of dirt, soot, and discolored varnish.

The heavy dirt and soot were removed with an aqueous solution adjusted to a particular pH and containing chelators.

Once the grey dirt and soot were cleaned from the surface, varnish removal began.

The process of varnish removal.

With the surface dirt and soot removed, one can already appreciate the original vibrancy of the colors. Part of the left side has been cleaned to remove the old, yellow varnish. You can really see this in the pink roses and the white flowers. Subtle cool undertones have been revealed, increasing the depth of the composition.

This detail taken during the varnish removal gives you a closer look at how the aged yellow varnish affected the appearance of the colors.

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Preserving a Legacy: See it while you can

The exhibition, Preserving a Legacy: Wishard Hospital Murals, is only open for one more month.  If you haven’t been, you might miss out on the unique opportunity to see the in-progress conservation work on these beautiful Hoosier paintings.

Wishard Hospital Murals

Wishard Hospital Murals

When you walk into the exhibition, you are greeted by a rare glimpse of art conservation.  The first painting you will see is Carl C. Graf’s Three Muses, which is presented in a partially conserved state.  The left side of the painting has not yet been conserved and is obscured by dirt, discolored varnish, and heavy restorer’s overpaint.  Walking into the gallery is like a behind-the-scenes visit to the conservation lab.  Take a look for yourself in the image below.

Three Muses

Three Muses

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About coconnell

Job Title: Associate Conservator of Paintings

Interests: Artist's materials and techniques, metalsmithing, knitting, cooking

Favorite Movies: The Shawshank Redemption, I Heart Huckabees, The Goonies

Favorite Music: Radiohead, Cat Power, and Nina Simone name a few

Favorite Food: Cheese, homemade apple pie (but not together)

Pets: I'd have a dog if my landlord would let me

Something you should know about me: If you want to know, just ask.

Christina has written 6 articles for us.