Case Study
           
           

Thomas Sully's

"Portrait of George Washington"
           



Before Treatment
           
           
           

2006 Examination
April 27-28
           
 

 Stretcher
 
           
The canvas has been stretched onto an ICA redwood spring-stretcher, H. 30" X W. 24 1/2". (21) It is comprised of four outside members and no cross-members. The members are 2 1/2" wide and 1" deep. There are no cracks or reinforcements. There is an ICA label and the accession number, 42.505, on the back of the stretcher. The stretcher members are straight and in excellent condition.
           

Horizontal View of Stretcher

Corner Mechanism
           
           
 

Gesso
 
           
The ground has been thinly and evenly applied, probably white initially but now slightly discolored from oil staining. The gesso appears to be calcium carbonate and is intact. The artist used the gesso as a transitional tone in the hair along the edges of the background and for some of the coat halftones.
           

Detail Hair/Background

Detail Lower Coat Half-Tones
           
 

Canvas
 
           
The lined, medium-weave linen support has 28 threads to the inch on both the warp and weft. The tacking edge is extant on all four sides, documenting that the composition has not been cut down. The lining has been carried out using Belgian linen and a non-aqueous wax adhesive . The canvas is fastened to the stretcher using metal tacks. Numerous former tears are present as detailed in the August 19, 1974 condition photo. These tears are jagged in nature and measure 4", 7", 12", and 22" in combined length.
           
The previous canvas tears are now lifting and obvious in both raking and reflective light. This would suggest that the tears were not properly aligned and stabilized before lining.
           

Detail Reflective Light

Detail Raking Light
           
           
 

Description
 
           
The half-length portrait is slightly under life-size. Washington is wearing a dark formal topcoat and a French-style ruffled white shirt with a high collar. He is shown against a warm flat background that blends easily with the warm, reddish flesh tones. There are no added details in the background and the sitter's hands are not visible. Washington is slightly turned to his right and gazes directly at the viewer with a captivating blend of dignity and pride. The portrait carries no visible signature or date. The previous 1973 examination listed the painting as unsigned.
           
           
 

 Paint
 
           
The paint was smoothly and evenly applied. There are no distinct areas of impasto. The gesso is apparent in the cited locations due to the thin application of the vehicular paint. (22) The flesh tones are somewhat thicker suggesting a careful modeling of diaphanous layers. Previous upper-right severe cracking, as noted in the 1973 condition report, is still apparent. The former lining has now fixed these cracks into position .
           

Detail Cracks Reflective Light

Detail Cracks Raking Light
           
           
 

 Restoration Paint
 
           
Oil paint discolors and darkens as it ages. As a result, when used for inpainting, it becomes increasingly obvious over time and out of context with the original that it was supposed to match. The Sully portrait suffered from this visual discontinuity. (23) The 1" retouched area directly above the head, as noted in the 1973 condition report, was still visible. Retouching along the tears, in the 1974 treatment, was also obvious and visually disturbing. Extensive background areas appeared to be liberally overpainted with a veiling oil-paint wash.
           

Background Inpainting Above Head

 

Background Tear Inpainting
           

 

Shirt Tear Inpainting

Detail Shirt Tear Inpainting
           
           
 

 Surface Film
 
           
The surface was coated with numerous films. The uppermost layer was a thin dirt and grime film, most likely the 22-year build up since the 1974 treatment. The next film was a thick layer of polyurethane. The third layer was a synthetic resin varnish. The next, applied to the background and in direct contact with the paint surface, was the above-mentioned oil-paint wash. This layer had identical solubility characteristics with the tear retouchings and must have been applied during the previous restoration. All of these films were masking the original color relationships and flattening the three-dimensional quality of the image.
           

   Condition Versus 1974 Treatment Proposal
         
The above examination calls into question the relationship between the 1974 treatment proposal and the work that was actually performed. Some of the treatment recommendations were undertaken while others were not. Also, the inpainting and varnishing materials were not to conservation standards. A point-by-point review is outlined below.
           
1. Removal of dirt and/or grime.
This was carried out
  2. Removal of discolored varnish.
This may have been carried out, but the 1973 examination did not list cleaning as a required recommendation.
  3. Filling of losses.
This was carried out.
  4. Relining on Belgian linen.
This was carried out.
  5. Restretching on redwood spring-stretcher.
This was carried out.
  6. Realignment of torn threads.
This was not carried out. The tears were not aligned properly before lining and, as a result, they are currently lifting and obvious.
  7. Removal of previous restorations.
This was not carried out. The 1973 condition report notes a 1" area of retouching directly above the head. This area was still apparent in 2006 and is pictured above. The retouching was in direct contact with the original paint layer and under the background wash.
  8. In-painting of losses.
This was carried out but the choice of an oil-based medium as an in-painting material exacerbated the visual awareness of the tears. As stated, oil paint discolors as it ages and becomes increasingly obvious and more difficult to remove over time. The reason for the background oil-paint wash was not fully understood during this examination. Its application would only be become clear during the author's treatment work.
  9. Coating with synthetic resins.
While polyurethane is synthetic, it is not considered a conservation material. One of the axioms of conservation is that all materials should be easily reversible. Polyurethane is one of the most difficult resins to dissolve. It also darkens as it ages. It was used in an attempt to mask the surface tears.
           
           
Footnotes        
(21) These stretchers were designed by Richard Buck of the ICA Oberlin Laboratory in 1950. They were initially made by Glenn Hobbs.
(22) George Stout, "Classes of Simple Paint Structure," Technical Studies (New York, N.Y.: Garland publishing, Inc, 1975. Reprinted from the original publication), Volume VI, 1938. 231.
(23) The author is personally aware of the 1974 restorers in-painting materials.
           

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Barry Bauman Conservation
Contact: Mr. Barry Bauman
1122 N. Jackson Ave., River Forest, IL. 60305
Ph.(708)771-0382  Fax.(708)771-1532
e-mail:barrybbc7@yahoo.com