Case Study    

Thomas Sully's

"Portrait of George Washington"

Before Treatment
  Exam/Treatment History  

February 7, 1932
In the spring of 1932, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin commemorated the 200-year anniversary of the birth of George Washington with a bi-centennial exhibit. An article from the Milwaukee Journal, dated February 7, 1932, and titled, "Sully Portrait to be Shown," states, "Charles E. Brown, museum chief, is planning to display the first painting ever given to the state historical society, a portrait of George Washington done by Thomas Sully, the early American painter, after Gilbert Stuart's Washington portrait. Mr. Brown values the painting at more than $10,000.00. He says it is an excellent likeness of Washington. The canvas has been cleaned and the frame has been renovated." (16)
While the article mentions that the painting was cleaned for the exhibit, there are no records to indicate who did the work or what was actually done to the painting. The image below depicts Charles Brown from the 1932 article with the painting and the original caption.

"Famous Painting on Display"

"One of the greatest treasures in the state historical museum is Thomas Sully's excellent portrait of George Washington. Valued at $10,000.00, it is considered too precious to be kept on display, but Curator, Charles E. Brown has decided to bring it out of storage for the museum exhibit in connection with the Washington bi-centennial celebration. Mr. Brown is shown beside the portrait. Thomas Sully, a Philadelphian, presented the painting to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1854 after he was made an honorary member." (17)


February 16, 1941 
The headline from a Madison Capitol Times article, dated February 16, 1941, reads, "Washington Portrait is on Display at Museum." The article begins, "Commemorating the nearing 209th birthday on Feb. 22 of the "Father of His Country," the state historical museum here has given a place of prominence in its galleries to one of its most prized possessions--the recently restored portrait of George Washington, painted by the noted American artist, Thomas Sully, after Stuart's famed original." The article goes on to state, "Brown explained that the Washington portrait had recently been restored by a Madison artist." (18)
Once again, the article mentions that the painting was "recently restored" but there are no records to verify who the "Madison artist" was and what was done. We also do not know if Brown was referring to the earlier 1932 cleaning. It would seem unlikely, but not impossible, that the painting would have been cleaned in 1932 and then again in 1941. Conservation was still in its infancy in 1941 and it is understandable, at that time, that the restoration was entrusted to an artist.
July 6, 1973
The Society is in possession of an unsigned, handwritten examination report dated July 6, 1973. The main headings include the following information.
  Distinguishing Marks: no signature
  Support: back of canvas in poor shape, very dirty, and showing the effects of fracture cracking--edges of canvass (sic) pulling off stretcher in some areas
  Ground: white
  Paint: Retouched piece 1" directly above head--piece of adhesive tape behind center of retouched area--section at right center bottom and just below ruffled area which may have been retouched. Surface of paint cracking mainly within face and white neck piece areas--horendous (sic) ripping and cracking of canvass (sic) along right edge of painting--general puckering throughout--canvas very loose and insecure on stretcher--might be small retouch spot in left bottom corner
  Surface coating: varnish--(sloppy job) fairly inconsistent application
  General remarks: photographed 7/5/73
  Recommendations: should be shown immediate attention--new stretcher and relined--possibly revarnished
The language used and the suggested recommendations indicate that, while unsigned, this report must have been written by someone with conservation experience. Several key points can be gleaned from the review: the painting is listed as unsigned; the canvas is weak, unstable and pulling free from the stretcher along the right edge; there is a retouched area 1" above the head that has been taped from the back; and the paint layer is cracking. The canvas must have been unlined in 1973, for a lined canvas rarely tears from the stretcher, and taped holes often occur on unlined supports. It is also important to note that the reviewer does not recommend cleaning, suggesting that the portrait was in acceptable visual condition. The cited 7/5/73 photo is pictured to the right.

Condition B/W Photo, July 5, 1973


August 19, 1974 
On or about August 19, 1974, the portrait was severely damaged resulting in neck, chest, shirt, shoulder and background tears. The images below document the painting's condition. (19)

Condition B/W Photo, August 19, 1974

Detail, August 19, 1974

November 12, 1974
In a November 12, 1974 treatment proposal by a Chicago-area, husband-wife restoration team, a check-list outline of repair was offered at a price of $500. (20) The nine-point proposal included:
  1. Removal of dirt and/or grime.
  2. Removal of discolored varnish.
  3. Filling of losses.
  4. Relining on Belgian linen.
  5. Restretching on redwood spring-stretcher.
  6. Realignment of torn threads.
  7. Removal of previous restorations.
  8. In-painting of losses.
  9. Coating with synthetic resins.
The treatment was apparently approved although no record of materials, treatment photos nor treatment dates were offered to the museum. In 2006, after only 32 years, the visual condition of the painting had deteriorated to such a degree that it was sent to the author for examination.
(16) "Sully Portrait to Be Shown,"Milwaukee Journal, 7 February 1932. Offered to the author in photostat form from the Society. No page number listed.
(17) Caption from the 7 February 1932 article.
(18) "Washington Portrait Is On Display at Museum," Madison Capitol Times, 16 February 1941. Offered to the author in photostat form from the Society. No page number listed.
(19) Black and white images courtesy of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
(20) For professional reasons, the names of the restorers have been withheld by the author. As noted, the checklist included "Relining on Belgian linen" under point #4. To conservators, this would suggest that the painting was previously lined. It should be noted that "Lining onto Belgian linen" was not included as a choice on the checklist. It seems likely that the 1973 examination was carried out by the same individuals who did the 1974 exam. If the earlier exam had been done by another restorer, the museum would have probably used that person in 1974.
  Home, Page 3, 4, 5



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