Tagged: clean oil painting

Cleaning A George Inness Landscape

When it comes to Tonalist paintings, the works of George Inness (American, 1825-1894) are considered masterworks of genius.  In his lifetime, Inness had notoriety and stature among the American Art Elite. His teachings and aesthetic continue to influence generations of artists, up to the present day.

The George Inness Tonalist Sunset Oil Painting.
The George Inness painting as it looked when it arrived in my studio.

A few months ago, I was asked to appraise and clean a magnificent Inness Sunset painting.  I was thrilled to examine it, following the pattern of brush work and glazes.  The glazed areas were thick and granular from dried oils.  The once-bright sunset colors were muted from a heavy layer of soot and grime.

It looked like the painting had been restored about 75 years ago. An old wax lining had stabilized heavy craquelure in the sky, and I found patches of old retouching.

Inness is known for using experimental methods and materials to achieve the luminosity and effects which made his work famous.  Among Conservators, his paintings are often referred to as “Headaches”.  I approached the cleaning with this in mind, backing off whenever the paint layer appeared compromised.  Sometimes, the cleaning would reveal a small patch of old retouching.  The retouched areas were much darker than the original paint, and it gave a clue that when the previous restoration was done, the painting was not cleaned.  That observation explained the copious amount of dirt being removed by my cotton swabs (See the photo inset which shows a set of cotton swabs with dirt from different areas of the painting.)

Partially cleaned Inness oil painting.
Partially cleaned painting. Cotton swabs (inset) show a record of the dirt and varnish which was removed.

Other areas, especially the granular glazes over the trees, were fragile. To prevent them from dissolving from the normal varnish-removal fluids, those areas were cleaned with a mild solution.

Finally, with the painting clean, and old retouching removed, a coating of non-yellowing varnish was applied.  A few areas of in-painting were needed in the old retouch areas, and to tone down some of the under-painting which was revealed (as cracks) through some shrinking paint layers in the glazed trees.

Inness oil painting sky + trees detail
Detail of sky and trees during cleaning






The final step in returning the painting to a semblance of its former glory was the application of two coatings of clear, non-yellowing varnish.  The colors and details became vibrant and crisp.   After installation back into its original frame, the result was quite satisfying.

George Inness Sunset oil painting after cleaning.
George Inness Sunset oil painting after cleaning.


What I Did This Summer

My idea of fun this summer was anticipating what new treasure would arrive at my studio next.  I was not disappointed!  The variety of paintings was totally fascinating.

The steady stream of oil paintings  included a normal array of smoke-covered 19th Century ancestors, views of Cape Cod and Europe, and several floral still-life paintings in various states of decay.  An then, in a box delivered from a collector in Miami, a fabulous 17th Century French altar-panel arrived!  Its paint was lifting, and covered with at least a century’s worth of soot. (Seems to have had some restoration work in the late 1800’s.)

A call from New Hampshire resulted in the arrival of a rare painting by William Morris Hunt.  It had been over a fireplace mantel since its creation in the mid 1800’s, and its winter moodiness was covered by a layer of grey.

A Rhode Island collector presented a 19th Century continental landscape for cleaning, it’s minute details all obscured by the residue of cigarette smoke.  An heir in Colorado sent two American 1880’s landscapes to be cleaned and repaired.  A woman in Utah sent a ripped painting of a horse, and a Massachusetts couple arrived at the studio with a cavalry battle-scene painting in need of cleaning.  And, apparently to balance-out my overly equine selection, a man from Connecticut brought a painting of cows.

It’ was a fun summer!



Discoveries While Restoring A 200 Year Old Oil Portrait

Some old paintings have a hidden history.  In the course of 200 years, a lot can happen to a painting, and it is rare to find one which has never required repair from some form of damage. This is the account of an oil portrait which had a few secrets.


1-Joel Prouty

A few months ago I was asked to restore a portrait of Joel Prouty, a Massachusetts resident born in the late 1700’s.  At first glance, it was obvious that painting was 200 year old oil portrait before restorationcovered in layers of smoke, soot and grime, but there were no rips or holes in the canvas.  However, something was wrong with the left side of his face.  As I examined the area, I noticed an unusual cracking and surface texture from an old repair, and that the previous retouching was crude.

When I turned the painting over to see the patch, I realized that the entire canvas had been lined onto a piece of linen, and by the look of it, the lining and repair were done about a hundred years ago!  A UV light inspection revealed obvious retouching on the face, but the black background and soot hid any other areas of alteration.

In evaluating my course of action, I determined to clean off all the soot, remove the old varnish and retouching, remove the patch and start the restoration with a new fresh surface.   If needed, the existing lining would also be removed and replaced.


When cleaning started, copious amounts of black grime were lifted from the surface.  The background was revealed to be painted in a dark, muted green.  A few spots resisted cleaning, and I soon realized that those spots were actually oil paint used in the previous restoration.  The restorer hadn’t cleaned the painting before retouching, and painted those areas by matching the color of the dirt!


That discovery was a precursor to what I was to find when cleaning the face.  You can see in the photos that most of the paint on the patched area came off.  However, where the artist blended over into the undamaged face, the paint was well bonded to the original paint.  It was very much darker than the cleaned area.

Patch revealed during cleaning of 200 year old oil painting.

In cleaning off the patch, it was revealed to be made of an old gesso formula which was in common use a century ago.  It was harder than plaster, and had developed a few cracks, but was otherwise stable and firmly in place.  I decided to repair the cracks with Acryloid B-72 (a glue used in sculpture repair) and then to re-level the patch with an acrylic filler.  The lining appeared to still be in excellent condition, so it was left alone.

As I continued cleaning into the lower background, large areas of black retouch paint started lifting off with the old dirt and varnish.  That paint was covering some scrapes and water damage. When I got to the lower left corner of the painting, I noticed bits of red appearing.  That turned out to be the artist’s signature!  Unfortunately, the last few letters and the date below were partially missing, but enough was visible to determine that the artist was Ethan Allen Greenwood, a noted Boston portrait painter active at the turn of the 18th Century!


Finding the signature was a thrill worthy of an Antiques Roadshow episode, but my excitement was tempered by the sight of the old patch covering what was once a large piece of missing canvas.  The repair of that area was going to take a bit of inventiveness, not just to create half a face with no reference, but to do it in a way that matched the qualities of the 200 year old surface around it.joel before & after copy

The face showed craquelure, and also a myriad of small flecks of missing paint.  Painting over the entire face was an unacceptable solution (I want to keep as much original paint showing as possible) so I painstakingly in-painted the worst of the paint-pits.  To replicate the complex surface of the original side, I decided to paint over the patch in a manner which had the visual qualities of the original side, but not the same texture.

The result is an almost pointillistic interpretation of the face, which blends well with the original area.


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!