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.
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 covered 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.
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.
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.