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Art conservation and double (or triple) the mystery

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A student wearing a magnifying visor and a face mask is touching a small cotton swab to the surface of the portrait painting.

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Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation Fellow Magdalena Solano conducting surface cleaning tests on the recto of the painting. (Image: Evan Krape)​

​An early 20th-century portrait of a male sitter with glasses was purchased at a yard sale by the current owners to hang over a mantel during their murder mystery dinner parties. The painting was stored in the owner’s attic for years; however, they later discovered that they had actually purchased two paintings—one on each side of the canvas. The portrait on the reverse is a Buffalo Soldier, the name given to two of the six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments created by Congress in 1866. The name later came to represent all six regiments.

This year, the portraits became a treatment project for Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) Fellow Magdalena Solano. Through x-ray analysis, a third painting, a landscape, was discovered beneath the Buffalo Soldier. The artist of these multiple paintings was William George Krieghoff (1875-1930), a Philadelphia painter known primarily for his portraits. Over his career, he painted portraits of many notables, but he spent the last 15 years of his life (1915-1930) working on the art staff of the old Philadelphia Public Ledger (1836-1942). The double-sided portraits, dated 1918, were done while he worked there, and the landscape was completed earlier and painted over. The portraits’ subjects are unconfirmed, but they may be a Ledger board member and Colonel Charles Young, a celebrated Buffalo Soldier who had a long military career and later became the first African-American National Park Superintendent. ​

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Close-up image of a paint cross-secton of the painting, showing the white ground layer, multiple organe, red, and brown layers, and a top varnish layer with some flecks of pigment in it.

Cross-section photomicrograph of the Buffalo Soldier, which shows multiple layers of paint in between pigmented varnish layers. (Image: Nylah Byrd)

​Although both sides were covered with dirt and grime, they were in generally fair condition, with some surface abrasions, aged and yellowing varnish, distortions in the canvas, and small losses throughout. They appeared never to have been treated. Magdalena was able to remove the dirt and grime from the portraits, but further treatment became more complicated as questions arose about the best method for treatment, and how far to take that treatment. Both portraits were covered with many layers of paint and varnish; humidification for the flattening was challenging but eventually successful. (Any treatment required suspending the canvas in a double-sided stretcher so both recto and verso could be accessed safely.) The paint used for the Buffalo Soldier’s portrait appears to have been intentionally mixed with varnish for a transparent effect, making safe removal of the darkened varnish extremely difficult. 

Magdalena worked with Winterthur scientists and her advisors to resolve the questions surrounding the artist’s working methodology and devising a safe treatment. Treatment will be continued by future WUDPAC Fellows, while Magdalena said she continues to be curious about the artist and his work.

​A printable PDF version of this story is available at this link​. Previous stories on projects from the Department of Art Conservation are archived on our website​.

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There are two pictures of a student working on the painting. In the first image, the student has removed the painting from its wodden support and it is laying on a table. In the second image, the student has turned the painting over to show the portrait on the back and is touching a small cotton swab to its surface.

Left: Magdalena adjusts the edge-lining and begins preparing the painting for humidification. Right: Magdalena conducting surface cleaning tests on the verso of the painting. (Images: Evan Krape)​​

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An early 20th-century portrait with two additional, hidden paintings became a treatment project for WUDPAC Fellow Magdalena Solano.
8/23/2021
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