The DesMoines Register
 "Revived Paintings Tell Iowa Stories"

 By Mary Challender
December 20, 2008

Some of Barry Bauman's finest work will be on display today when Iowa's State Historical Museum opens a new exhibit of paintings titled "Recovered Treasures: Saving Iowa's Painted Past." But don't bother looking for the 60-year-old Illinois man's signature at the bottom of any of the artworks. An Elected Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation, Bauman doesn't create art, he resuscitates it. For the past five years, State Historical Museum officials have been making nearly quarterly pilgrimages to Bauman's basement workshop in River Forest, Ill., bringing damaged portraits and landscapes from the state's collection for the master to work his magic on them.

Dirty and darkened, with areas of flaking paint and rips in the canvas, many of the paintings hung for decades in the old historical building, vulnerable to sunlight, tobacco smoke, coal dust and the occasional errant mop handle. When the old building closed, they were tucked away for safe keeping in a climate-controlled room in the basement of the new Historical Museum, too worn for continuous public display but still historically valuable. Then one day in early 2004, a rather strange letter arrived at the museum. The letter was from Bauman, who had recently sold his company, the Chicago Conservation Center, and wanted to offer his services to museums and other non-profits. And he said he would work for free, charging only for materials. Surprisingly, his phone didn't immediately begin ringing off the hook.

"Most people threw them away," he said of the letters. "In America, if something is too good to be true, it can't be true."

Staff members at the State Historical Museum, though, were intrigued enough to check into Bauman's credentials. Soon, they were en route to River Forest with six oil paintings from the 1800s, including one - an 1858 landscape of the first bridge across the Mississippi River - which was badly torn.


Before Treatment

After Treatment

"View of the First Bridge Across the Mississippi River," 1858 oil on canvas, attributed to New York painter Rufus Wright. To repair gashes, as shown below in the before picture, Bauman lines the back of the canvas with linen then uses a thin primer called gesso to fill in gaps in the canvas. He works under a microscope with special acrylic paints to "inpaint" the patched area where paint was missing so the repair is indistinguishable from the rest of the painting.
Painstaking Process

Bauman tackled cleaning the paintings first, working under a microscope with cotton-tip swabs - "We're trying to save art, not time," he noted - to painstakingly remove layers of dirt, grime and dark yellow varnish. Next, he went to work repairing structural problems; flattening wavy canvases, securing loose paint, fixing tears and retouching lost areas of paint. He lined the backs of the worn, old canvases with Belgian linen to strengthen them and then used a material called gesso (a thin primer made of marble dust and rabbit skin) to fill in gashes and gouges. Working under the microscope, he used special acrylic paints to "inpaint" parts of the canvas where the paint was missing.

"It's a skill learned over years of training to understand how to color match and to make it in a way so that it's invisible," Bauman said. "You have to match not only the hue and the texture but the chroma of the color, the characteristics of age. You have to make the color look old. If you don't do that, the repair jumps off the surface and looks like newly applied paint."

Finally, Bauman applied a non-yellowing varnish to the paintings.

"I want to make it look like it just came off the artist's easel," he said.


Before Treatment

After Treatment

Portrait of Peter Twiss Russell" by Benjamin Franklin Witmer. Oil on Canvas painted about 1870 SUBJECT: Peter Russell (1808-1881) was born in Concord, New Hampshire. He was a pastor in the Disciples of Christ Church and served as a chaplain in the 39th Iowa Infantry in the Civil War. He also served in the 9th General Assembly. THE PROCESS: Working with the painting under a microscope, Barry Bauman starts by cleaning off old, yellowed varnish. He lines the back of the canvases with Belgian linen to strengthen them and then "inpaints" areas where the paint has flaked off, using the microscope and special acrylic paints. "You have to match not only the hue and the texture but the chroma of the color, the characteristics of age," he said "You have to make the color look old. If you don't do that, the repair jumps off the surface and looks like newly applied paint." Finally, he applies new varnish.
"I love what I do"

In total, Bauman has restored 32 paintings for the Historical Museum, donating an estimated $100,000 in labor. Other Iowa institutions have also sent artworks his way, including Coe College, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, the Keokuk and Wapello county historical societies, and the Brunier Art Museum at Iowa State University. Bauman says there's a vast collection of paintings that have been basically "orphaned" by non-profit institutions because "it's very difficult in this time for museums to have funds for preservation when they're trying to pay for the lights and heat." He seems willing to adopt all that come his way - he was up to 500 works for 110 institutions at last count - and isn't at all bothered by the fact that five years into his retirement, he still works every day.

"I really love what I do," he said. "I don't consider what I do work or a job, I consider it a reward. I think everybody wants to find something that they take pleasure in. When I have a beautiful painting on my easel in which I've allowed the artist to look as good as he or she can, that's my reward."

Chief curator Michael Smith said collecting the likenesses of notable Iowans has always been part of the state Historical Society's mission. The state's collection includes more than 300 paintings, including portraits of Iowa governors, state Supreme Court justices and various other elected officials.

"We joke that we have a really large collection of old dead white men in dark coats," Smith said.




Jerry Brown, an exhibit designer at the Historical Museum, installs an informational label next to one of the paintings that has been conserved. This undated oil painting is "Portrait of Jennie Dodson (Mrs. Beryl F.) Carroll (1858-1946)." It was painted by Alice McKee Cumming (1890-1965), who was the wife of Charles Atherton Cumming, who was her teacher at the Cumming School of Art.  Jerry Brown, exhibit designer, (left) and Rick von Holdt, museum staffer, install the labels for the paintings Wednesday afternoon as they get the exhibit ready for today's opening. The painting in the center of the photo is "Portrait of Chief Black Hawk" (1767-1838), by Charles Atherton Cumming (1858-1932). The oil was painted on canvas in 1901.
Historically Valuable

The paintings in the state's collection were chosen for what they say about the state's history, not their artistic merit, but the collection also includes some interesting landscapes, such as an 1854 painting titled "View of Washington From the Insane Asylum." It's signed simply E. Bassett and shows the Washington Monument still under construction.

"I can't find any reference to this artist published," Smith said. The paintings are historically valuable because of their ages but also because they help tell a story about the people and places in them, Smith said.

"It's an opening," he said. "You can make a connection and many times you can get an indication of personality, especially if an artist is good, from a painting that you can't always get in a photograph or a book, just from the pose they choose to use." He pointed to an 1896 portrait of Frances Cooper Hubbell, painted in Paris.

"It's the kind of portrait that kind of says, 'Look, I made it,'" he said. "It's what you did if you were an upper class family of that period. If you were really upper class, you had (John Singer) Sargent paint your portrait." Bauman's work, Smith said, not only has helped preserve art, it's helped restore some of the fine details that make history come alive.

When Bauman finished renovating a 1901 oil painting of Chief Black Hawk by renowned Iowa artist Charles Atherton Cumming, Smith said he looked it over carefully, marvelling that he could no longer see a trace of the hole that formerly marred the canvas.Then he saw something that really surprised him. In cleaning the painting, Bauman had revealed that the dark background area behind Black Hawk was actually an Impressionistic landscape scene.

"I wasn't aware this was water in the background," Smith said. "What's nice about getting these paintings redone is you see things you didn't know were there. You get the subtleties that give them depth and realism."

Bauman in his home studio. Restoring old paintings is painstaking work, often done under a microscope. Bauman's philosophy: "We're trying to save art, not time."

Recovered Treasures: Saving Iowa's Painted Past

WHAT: Free exhibit of 20 portraits and landscapes, most from the vaults of the State Historical Museum, which have been restored by Illinois art conservation expert Barry Bauman
WHEN: Opens today, hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-4:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: State Historical Museum, 600 E. Locust St.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Individuals interested in learning more about Bauman's work, including before and after images, can go to




Barry Bauman Conservation
Contact: Mr. Barry Bauman
1122 N. Jackson Ave., River Forest, IL. 60305
Ph.(708)771-0382  Fax.(708)771-1532