Case Study

Thomas Sully's

"Portrait of George Washington"

Before Treatment

May 8, 2006
Pinpoint losses were weak and unstable. These areas were individually stabilized using a 1:10 gelatin adhesive. The liquid adhesive was applied warm using a small sable brush. This initial step allowed treatment work to continue without risk of further loss. (24)

The cleaning of an oil painting involves the removal of discolored surface films and all areas of non-original paint. An understanding of the chemistry of paint films is required to remove the films without injury to the surface. This work is carried out under microscope binocular magnification using cotton swabs and appropriate solvents.
The Sully was coated with several films. Each of these was individually removed. The upper dirt film was removed using a Ph-neutral detergent. The polyurethane required stronger organics. The solvent was tempered with a more volatile solvent to increase the evaporation rate and offer exact surface control. The removal of the oil wash and remnants of the synthetic resin required a different organic solvent. All of the former restoration work along the tears was removed during the cleaning process.

Full View During Cleaning

Detail During Cleaning

Detail During Cleaning

Detail During Cleaning
The cleaning reinstated the original color relationships and the intended illusion of three-dimensional space. It also exposed the considerable damage that had taken place during the former restoration, necessitating the oil wash. The solubility of the oil wash was identical to the tear inpainting and must have been applied at the same time. The older restorations, which were not removed during the former cleaning, had different solubility characteristics. The painting's after-cleaning appearance revealed a surface with severe damage to the coat and background. Fortunately, Washington's portrait was well preserved.

After Cleaning

Detail After Cleaning

Detail After Cleaning

Detail After Cleaning
Lining Removal/Tear Repair
The original support had been lined to a secondary canvas during the previous restoration using a wax adhesive. In order to reverse the lining, the painting was removed from the stretcher and slightly warmed on a vacuum hot-table. This allowed easy manual separation of the two canvases. Remnant wax was then removed from the back of the painting by wicking the adhesive into Kraft paper with the aid of a warm iron.
Placing the painting face down, the tears were dampened and brought into position under light weights. The weights remained in place overnight. The tears were then individually fixed into proper alignment with Japanese tissue paper and Beva-371 film adhesive. This provided strength during the treatment work as well as long-term stability.
Occasionally, conservators are rewarded in their work with the discovery of historical information, a hidden signature, inscription, or date. This rarity occurred at this stage of the treatment. When the former lining and adhesive were removed, Sully's original signature was unveiled on the back of the canvas. The original date, 1854, was also visible. Even Sully's allegiance to Stuart was intact. With a painting that had suffered so much, it is truly remarkable that this information was retrieved. The original inscription probably read, "Copied after Stuart. TS 1854," although today, the word "after" is not visible. While the information is quite faint, it is still surprising that museum records and two previous examinations listed the painting as unsigned and undated.



TS     1854
The removal of the lining fabric also revealed the original canvas stamp. The stamp documents the canvas maker as Charles Roberson, 51 Long Acre, London. The image below details the stamp and several tears before stabilization. (25)

Prepared By
Charles Roberson
51 Long Acre. London
The previous lining had fixed the surface cracks into position. To reverse this condition, the painting underwent a moisture/vapor (MV) treatment. This treatment allows organic and aqueous vapors to filter through the paint surface under controlled vacuum hot-table procedures. As a result, lifting areas of paint relax and return to plane. Prior to relining, the tears and losses were filled with gesso. Filling has two purposes. It prevents further damage by sealing the edges of holes, tears and open cracks. It also is used to reproduce a sympathetic surface with respect to plane and texture. The gesso was a mixture of marble dust and a 1:7 gelatin adhesive. (26) In order to best stabilize the original support, strengthen the torn threads and consolidate any areas of loose paint, a new canvas was attached to the verso of the original using a non-aqueous adhesive. This was carried out using standard hot-table procedures at 145 degrees Fahrenheit and 1" of mercury. After relining, the painting was restretched onto the current spring-stretcher using copper tacks. (27)
A brush coat of Windsor-Newton non-yellowing varnish was applied to the paint surface. Varnish is applied for several reasons. First, it reinstates the richness of the paint allowing the darks to have their proper tone. Second, it keeps dirt and air pollution off the picture surface. Third, the surface coating protects the paint layer from damage caused by abrasion, moisture, and accidental accretions. The varnish also creates an ethical buffer between the original paint layer and the retouching or inpainting. Conservators do not paint directly on the original paint surface. The work is done on top of an isolating varnish and can be removed by simply removing the underlying varnish. The image below documents the painting's appearance after filling, relining and varnishing, and before retouching.

Full View Before Retouching
Retouching is carried out to correct visual irregularities caused by inherent structural problems or surface damage. Its purpose is to reduce or eliminate these inconsistencies. It is applied only to areas of loss and never extends over the original paint. The retouching was completed using Maimeri conservation pigments. These pigments are both color and light fast offering confidence that the restoration areas will remain consistent over time as opposed to the earlier oil retouching. Also, the pigments are soluble in mineral spirits. This relatively weak solvent permits safe and easy removal without risk of injury to the paint surface.

Detail Before Retouching

Detail During Retouching
September 6, 2006
After retouching, the application of a final non-yellowing spray varnish completed the treatment.

Before Treatment

After Treatment

(24) References for consolidation, cleaning, varnishing and retouching from the author's 2005 Case Study on Heinrich Knirr's, "Portrait of Adolf Hitler."
(25) It is interesting that Sully used a canvas made in London. He was probably introduced to the maker during one of his trips to London in either 1809 or 1837. It is likely that he ordered the material directly from London. It is less likely, in his era, that he bought the material from an American distributor.
(26) Filling, retouching and varnishing purposes from Morton C. Bradley, The Treatment of Pictures (Cambridge, MA.: Cosmos Press, 1950).
(27) Due to the fact that the relining once again covered the inscription, the area was traced and the tracing was reapplied to the back of the lining fabric. In this way, the original location and handwriting was preserved.

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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