Cleaning Smoke and Dirt from a 19th Century Genre Painting

It seems fitting that my first blog post should be about cleaning years of smoke and grease from an old painting.  The one I’m showing here was found at an antique show, and turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  The dealer I bought it from knew that I restored paintings, and showed me a few which had rips in them, but were otherwise unremarkable. I decided that even after hours of restorative work, they would still be bad paintings. So I passed on them.

As I was about to leave, I spotted this yellowed gem in the back of his booth.  At first I had ignored it, thinking that it was an old chromolithograph, but on second look I realized that something better was lurking under its dirty surface.  On close inspection, it turned out to be a meticulously painted genre scene from around 1850!

In the studio, I tested cleaning the upper left corner.  (See the first photo above.) The amber-brown of nicotine and kitchen grease lifted to reveal a smooth paint surface beneath.  (Sorry for the fuzzy photo– I guess I was excited.)

As cleaning goes, this was a relatively easy job.  The dirt and old yellowed varnish removed with mild solvents, and after a few hours the original painting was glistening with light again.  And  the paint film had aged very well, with only very fine craquelure (fitting for its age) and hardly a scrape or a chip!

After a minor bit of in-painting, I coated the painting with a non-yellowing archival varnish.  The crystal-clear varnish enhanced all the delicate details of the scene, which now looks exciting and animated.

And as for the painting itself, what can I say? Just looking at it speaks volumes. Fabulous clothes, crisp details, an attractive couple chatting it up, and beer!

But unfortunately, there is no signature on this masterful work.  So I did a bit of research.  The painting style and subject was popular among early and mid nineteenth century  European painters.  So I looked for clues in the clothing of the models to determine which section of Europe it may have come from.

The beer made me think of looking at  German clothing first, but when that was not a match, I searched traditional costumes of Northern and Eastern European countries.  Eventually, the closest match was an illustration of Swedish traditional clothing, which is included in the photos here.

The oil painting is about 20″ x 16″, and was unframed when I got it.  Fortunately I had a similar size circa 1880 American walnut frame in the studio, and although it’s newer than the painting, they look great together!

Now that the painting is restored, it is for sale and can be seen along with many other paintings from my studio in my Ruby Lane shop, Conservator’s Choice.

Years of smoke & dirt!