Tagged: Portrait painting repair

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.


An Unexpected Adventure Restoring Governor Clifford’s Portrait

A lot of 19th Century portraits arrive at my studio.   Often they are suffering from aged canvas and a good coating of soot.  Sometimes they have holes in them, lifting paint from water damage, and lots of distracting craquelure.

Recently I was asked to restore a portrait of Massachusetts Governor John Clifford (1853).  It had almost every kind of damage except fire.  The canvas was rotted and weak: it had fallen out of its frame.  At some point in the past, it suffered water damage which lifted quite a bit of paint.  There were a few small rips.  Grime was covering everything.  And it had undergone an amateur bit of retouching which left the Governor with a grotesque claw-like hand.  I thought the poor man was victim of a stroke!

The portrait as it arrived in my studio.
The portrait as it arrived in my studio.


The claw.
The claw.






Needless to say, Governor Clifford’s portrait was going to be a very involved job.  I performed the normal steps of using a vapor treatment to relax the cupping craquelure, and the entire paint film was consolidated from behind to prevent further flaking from the water damage.  Then the canvas was lined onto a sandwich of archival polyester mesh and mylar.

The cleaning process went as expected, until I reached the hand.  I carefully removed the old retouching, expecting to see the old water-damaged hand beneath it. That’s where my adventure began.

The Stump.
The Stump.

There was not a trace of the old hand, except for the area which had been scrubbed down by the previous restorer!  Yuk!  Looked like a stump!

For a while I considered inventing a hand to fit the pose.  The Governor was holding his Phi Beta Kappa key, so I did a quick study to find the hand position which may have been there.  That’s when I remembered that the portrait’s owner had mentioned that this painting may be a copy of one in the Massachusetts State House in Boston.

I called the Curator of Collections at the State House, described my project, and asked if Governor Clifford was also holding a key in the State’s portrait, and if I could be emailed an image of the portrait for reference.  The answer was that the portraits most likely matched, but that the one on display in the Capitol was also in need of cleaning, and the details of the key-holding hand were obscured in their photo.

State House Portrait.
State House Portrait.

So, camera in hand, I went to Boston to see the painting, which I was told was installed in the third floor corridor, on the right side of the House Chamber door.  Unfortunately, when I arrived the House was in session and the area around the door, including Governor Clifford’s portrait, was cordoned.  I couldn’t get a good photo from behind the ropes , so I explained my mission to a nearby State Trooper who escorted me to the painting so I could get my photos. (And yes, the painting is DARK — and in a poorly lit corridor — so my photos turned out grainy but useable.)

Reference photo of the Governor's hand in the State House version is used as a reference for replacing the damaged hand.
Reference photo of the Governor’s hand in the State House version being used as a reference for replacing the damaged hand.

Those photos turned out to be a great resource in replacing the hand.  The old retoucher had the right idea for the pose, but just didn’t have the skill to make it believable.  The original painting shows that the key is indeed held in an unusual pose. So I started in on  the task of reproducing the hand, and painting it in a manner similar to the Governor’s other hand, which is softly rendered and refined.

This project was fascinating for me.  It was gratifying to see the process yield results, and to know that by not taking the easy route (inventing a new hand) I was helping preserve an historic document in an authentic way.

The restored portrait of Governor Clifford.
The Governor's new hand.
The Governor’s new hand.