Restoring a Masterpiece

A few years ago, one of the most valuable items in the Wisconsin Historical society's collection--the 1887 John Singer Sargent portrait of Wisconsin governor Lucius Fairchild--was in danger. Age had distorted the painting's original color and depth, threatening the long-term preservation of this important work.
Fortunately, the Society happened upon the services of Illinois-based conservator Barry Bauman who offers complimentary conservation services to organizations like the Wisconsin Historical Society. Bauman graciously restored the Fairchild painting to its original glory, the restoration of which is featured in the autumn issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History. He will also be in Madison for a rare viewing of the Fairchild painting and to talk about his conservation on October 9, 2007 at Society Headquarters. Bauman recently answered some questions about his work and the importance of painting conservation.

John Singer Sargent "Portrait of General Lucius Fairchild"
After Treatment
What is painting conservation and why is it important?
Painting conservation entails the long-range preservation of painted surfaces. These are normally works of art on canvas or wooden supports. Without these services, great works of art would be lost for future generations to enjoy.
What steps are involved in the conservation process?
There are normally three areas in the conservation of a painting. First, discolored surface films of aged varnish and dirt have to be removed. This is carried out using organic solvents, detergents, or enzymes. Secondly, the structural condition has to be stabilized. Tears have to be repaired and weakened canvases have to be reinforced. Third, areas of loss have to be retouched to match the original to both value and hue. This work is undertaken using light- and color-fast reversible materials.
How did you get involved in the restoration of the Lucius Fairchild painting? Did you know of the painting beforehand?
I was made aware of the painting by Scott Roller, Registrar for the WSHS. When I suggested the piece for examination, he was able to receive approval for the request from Joe Kepler, Curator of the Collection, and Ellsworth Brown, Director.
Did the Fairchild painting present any unique challenges? How long did the work take to complete?
The above three areas of work required four months to complete. It is a humbling experience to work on a Sargent. The unique challenge was to have this great portrait serve as a testament to Sargent's rare talent.

How did you get into the field of conservation? What drew you to it originally and keeps you doing it today?
I received my MA degree in Art History, with a specialization in Dutch Baroque painting, from the University of Chicago. One of the courses offered a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago's conservation department. It was at that moment that I had an introduction to the field and the museum's Head Conservator. Upon graduation, I contacted him and established a ten-year apprenticeship. I stayed at the museum eleven years, leaving as the Associate Conservator of Paintings. The joy of working on paintings, like the Sargent, keeps me more than satisfied.
In 2004, you established your own conservation facility and decided to offer your services to nonprofit institutions free of charge. What made you decide to do this and how many institutions have you assisted?
I founded and then directed, for twenty years, the largest private conservation facility in America. After I sold the company, I decided to work exclusively for museums and non-profit organizations. I thought that I would do it at a reduced cost to try and help area museums so strapped for preservation dollars. It was my wife who said, "Why don't you do it for free." The minute she said it, I knew that that is what I would do. There are many people who say they love their job so much they would do it for free. How many do you know? To date, I have treated almost 400 paintings for 85 institutions. Donations have exceeded 1.5 million dollars.
Bauman is currently working on two more paintings for the Society: a Samuel Marsden Brookes portrait of Increase Lapham (ca. 1850) and Edwin Knutesen's "Construction Crew, Kilbourn Ave. (1941). To learn more about Bauman's work and to read a detailed case study of the Fairchild restoration, visit