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.
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.)
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.
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.