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Behind the Scenes: Treatment of an Early Work by Henry Ossawa Tanner

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Two paintings displayed on easels in a conservation studio.

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​Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings in the Dallas Museum of Art conservation studio​. (Photo: L. Hartman/DMA)

​WUDPAC alumna Laura Hartman, paintings conservator at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), recently completed the treatment and technical study of a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner.​​ The treatment of Tanner's The Thankful Poor was undertaken at the DMA​​ in collaboration with the Art Bridges Foundation. Hartman also co-curated the exhibition of the work along with Sue Canterbury, DMA's American Art Curator, which included a section on the technical study of the painting. A blog post about the project appears on the DMA website, and Hartman was recently interviewed by National Public Radio (NPR) about the project.

​Excerpted from Hartman's blog post:

The Dallas Museum of Art and Art Bridges Foundation partnered in early January of this year to undertake the conservation treatment and technical study of Art Bridge’s newly acquired masterpiece The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Additionally, the project will allow for the first public presentation of the work, curated by Sue Canterbury at the DMA.​​

When The Thankful Poor arrived at the DMA’s conservation studio, it was already strikingly beautiful. The composition holds space and immediately draws the viewer in. The painting is double-sided, presenting an unfinished version of The Young Sabot Maker on the reverse, a composition Tanner would complete the following year and which now resides in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s collection.​

Prior to any conservation treatment, a thorough examination is always undertaken, including archival documentation research relating to any previous interventions. It became apparent that the work had undergone at least one relatively minor restoration campaign in the 1970s. It was also evident that the painting was cleaned and re-varnished in a second treatment, though no verifiable documentation was found. UV illumination was used to better understand which varnishes and treatment materials might have been used, as surface materials such as varnishes and areas of retouching can be differentiated based on their observed fluorescence. . . . As both of these treatments took place many years earlier, the varnish layers had become discolored, both yellowed and cloudy. An old tear that had been repaired using wax and paper had also begun to open and needed to be addressed. Finally, a thick layer of discolored adhesive was scattered throughout the composition on the reverse of the canvas.​


To read more about this project, and to see more images of the painting during the technical study and treatment, visit the DMA blog website.​

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A detail from the painting, showing a man and boy sitting at a table. The detail area is shown before and after removal of the discolored varnish.

​Before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894, oil on canvas, Owned by Art Bridges Foundation​. (Photos: L. Hartman/DMA)

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10/8/2021
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