Portrait of John Altgeld
by Ralph Elmer Clarkson

Case Study

Before Treatment
John Altgeld was born in 1847 near Wiesbaden, Germany. His family moved to the United States and settled in Ohio. He served in the Civil War and afterwards went on to become a lawyer. In 1884 he published Our Penal Machinery and its Victims which criticized the court system for discriminating against the poor. He was known as a reformer and served as a Cook County judge from 1886 to 1891 and then as governor of Illinois from 1893 to 1897. Under his guidance, Illinois established a board to settle strikes. He also established a commission which gave prisoners the right to parole and probation. As a champion of social rights, Altgeld carries a rare distinction as one of Illinois' most distinguished political figures. John Altgeld died in 1902.
Ralph Clarkson is one of Chicago's most important portrait artists. Clarkson was born in 1861 in Massachusetts. He studied art in Boston and with the renown Lefebvre in Paris. He eventually came to Chicago in 1896 and became an instructor and governing member of the Art Institute. In 1898 he was a founding member of the Eagle's Nest Colony (see previous page under Oregon Public Library). The Colony acted as a summer retreat for a variety of artists including Lorado Taft and Hamlin Garland. The lease on the property lasted as long as one of the original founding members was alive. In 1942, the Colony ended upon the death of Ralph Clarkson. He is currently represented in the collections of the National Academy, New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The oil-on-canvas portrait measures H. 30" X W. 25". The painting is signed and dated lower right, "Ralph Clarkson, 1898". The support is stretched onto a four-member, simple mortise and tenon stretcher, Richard Buck type 4a. ( "Stretcher Design, A Brief Preliminary History." Intermuseum Laboratory, Oberlin, Ohio. October, 1972. p.16 ) There are no verso labels. All keys are intact. The linen support is unlined with 22 threads to the inch on both the warp and weft. Distinct cusping of the canvas threads is apparent on all four sides signifying the original composition. Only one set of tacking holes is present verifying that the painting is on its original stretcher. The calcium carbonate ground is thinly and evenly applied, probably white when first applied but now slightly darkened from oil staining. The oil paint is vehicular in nature.( George Stout, "Classes of Simple Paint Structure," Technical Studies, Volume VI, 1938, p.231 ) The paint is applied thinly with some minor impasto present in the collar area. The paint surface is coated with two distinct films. A dirt and grime film is resting on top of an older varnish. The natural-resin varnish may have been applied while the portrait was within a frame for the film was thinner to non-existent at the edges.
The stretcher is original and in good condition. The members are straight and stable with all keys present. The canvas support has weakened over time. There is a separation at H.17.5" X W. 17". The tear has been poorly repaired with a cotton duck patch, now lifting at the edges. The lower tacking edge shows a central six-inch tear. While the paint layer is intact it is heavily cracked throughout. Edge areas of paint are weak and unstable. Former restoration work has been amateurishly applied resulting in large blanched areas above both shoulders and in the lower right and left quadrants. The varnish film has yellowed and darkened over time. This layer, coupled with the overlaying dirt and grime, has robbed the portrait of its original color relationships and the illusion of three-dimensional space.
Raking-Light Detail
A raking-light photograph places a light source on only one side of the image. This allows the conservator the ability to more accurately understand surface texture and support stress. Here the pronounced cracking becomes evident and documents the painting's inherent instability. The blanched overpaint is also well recorded in this detail.
When a patch is applied to a canvas tear, the outline of the patch will often become visible on the front over time. This is due to the fact that the threads are restricted under the patch in contrast to the rest of the canvas. One can clearly see the circular outline of the patch in the previous photo just above the sitter's shoulder.
Verso Detail 

Tacking Edge Detail
A canvas support will expand and contract with changes in relative humidity. To best protect works of art it is important to keep the interior relative humidity as stable as possible. Suggested ranges would be 40-60% throughout the year with 50% being the ideal. Here support shrinkage has resulted in a canvas tear along the lower tacking edge.
The cleaning of an oil painting involves the removal of discolored surface films and all areas of non-original paint. A precise understanding of the chemistry of paint films is required to remove the films without injury to the paint surface. The work is carried out under binocular magnification using appropriate conservation solvents and cotton swabs. The upper dirt film was removed using a non-phosphate detergent. The discolored varnish was removed using a 1:1 mixture of acetone and xylene.
Binocular Microscope

During Cleaning

Detail During Cleaning
The above images document the dramatic cleaning change resulting from the removal of the varnish and dirt. Earlier restoration work was applied directly onto the original paint surface using an oil medium. Oil paint darkens as it ages and becomes insoluble. The removal of the overpaint required scalpel assistance under binocular magnification at 10X.

After Cleaning
The removal of the blanched overpaint revealed a white gesso fill in former holes. The previous restorer was not able to match the tone of the loss areas and tried to mask this inability by overpainting the original.

Vacuum Hot-Table
The paint layer was cracking throughout, loss areas were present and the support was torn along the bottom tacking edge. In order to provide future strength and stability, a new canvas was attached to the back of the original using a non-aqueous adhesive. This lining procedure not only reinforces the original canvas but also assists to stabilize the paint layer. The process is carried out on a vacuum hot-table under controlled heat and pressure. The table is warmed to the contact point of the adhesive. A low vacuum is pulled resulting in perfect adhesion between the original canvas and the lining fabric. When completed, the painting was restretched onto the original stretcher using copper tacks.
Canvas Insert

Old Gesso
The large gesso fill presented certain problems. The smoothness of the fill did not reiterate the texture of the original canvas. This inconsistency was corrected by removing the old fill and replacing it with a Belgian linen insert.
New Linen Insert
A brush coat of Windsor-Newton non-yellowing Winton 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. This re-creates the intended three-dimensional illusion of space. Secondly, it keeps dirt and air pollution off of the picture surface. 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 the isolating varnish and can be removed by simply removing the underlying varnish.
Retouching is carried out to correct visual irregularities caused by inherent structural problems or surface damage. The images below detail specific areas. The image on the left shows traction crackle allowing an unintended tone to be visible. The central image documents the gesso fills in two former holes. The right image details the abraded canvas weave around the insert. In order to offer a smooth fill, the former restorer sanded the gesso. Unfortunately, the adjacent paint was also sanded resulting in more damage. All of these visual inconsistencies were retouched using Maimeri light-fast and color-fast conservation pigments.

Traction Crackle

Former Holes

After retouching, the application of a final non-yellowing spray varnish completed the treatment.

Before Treatment

After Treatment
Home, Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12


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