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WUDPAC Class of 2022 Fellow Katie Rovito examining drying cracks under the microscope in the Portrait of Jane Hoskyns. (Photo credit: Julianna Ly)
I could not be happier with my third year at the Cleveland Museum of Art. My four major projects all have interesting art historical backgrounds and complex treatment challenges. I've been able to take advantage of the analytical tools available here and I've learned so much from working with the talented team of conservators. One of my earlier treatment projects, A Winter Sky, by the American landscape painter, George Inness, is about to go on display in an exhibit curated by Julie Mehretu. When I was working on another one of my projects, the Portrait of a Mother and Daughter, a painting with a questionable attribution, I uncovered a faint signature for the French artist, Henri-Pierre Danloux (1753-1809) that had been obscured by the discolored coatings. I'm excited to reverse the wax lining on the painting, Flying Ponies (Euclid Beach Park), 1932 by the renowned Cleveland-born artist, Carl Gaertner.
I'm finishing up treating a portrait by the well-known 18th-century British artist, George Romney (1734-1802). One of the main condition issues was the traction cracks in the dark colors. If you walk through the British galleries at the CMA, you might notice a similar cracking pattern or even an alligator-skin-like texture on the surface. These types of cracks form when layers of paint dry unevenly. Many British painters in the late 1700s were experimenting with different materials to attempt to mimic the translucent glazes seen on old master paintings. Their paint additives like natural resins, megilp, or bitumen caused severe cracking that would start within the artist's lifetime and continue to worsen with time.
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Portrait of Jane Hoskyns, c. 1778-1780. George Romney (British, 1734-1802). Oil on canvas; 69.8 x 59 cm. 1916.1041. Overall front, normal light, after cleaning and varnishing. (Photo credit: David Brichford)
Detail of drying cracks in the background. (Photo credit: Katie Rovito)
It's likely that the condition of the Portrait of Jane Hoskyns was due to Romney using a combination of these types of materials. There are 18th-century manuscripts that recommend using bitumen as a glazing color for its transparency and warm tone. Bitumen, also known as asphaltum, partially dissolves in oil and significantly slows its drying time. Recipes often included different resins, waxes, and dryers to counteract the poor drying and aging properties. Another possible culprit is megilp. Popularized by one of Romney's contemporaries, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), megilp is a thixotropic gel that forms when you mix together linseed oil, mastic varnish, and a lead drier. The gel medium makes a transparent paint that can still hold impasto.
In addition to the drying cracks, these paint modifiers greatly impact the solubility of the paint film. Finished paintings were often coated with a natural resin varnish such as mastic. It's common practice for aged and yellowed coatings to be cleaned and replaced. When resins are added to oil paint, the solubility can become close to that of the top varnish layers, making removal of the varnish nearly impossible without removing original paint or glazes. This was especially true during earlier restoration campaigns when conservators were using more aggressive solvent mixtures than we have available today.
Detail of abrasion. (Photo credit: Katie Rovito)
There were signs that Romney's Portrait of Jane Hoskyns had been overcleaned in a past restoration before it was acquired by the museum. There was abrasion throughout the painting where you could see original glazes had been removed from the peaks of the canvas weave. Transparent, thinly applied original tones that made up the shadows in the sitter's dress ended abruptly where overcleaning had occurred. Similarly, you could see a distinct line along the lower right edge of the oval where the darker original glazes end. Here, it is likely that this edge was once covered by a frame. When paint and varnish layers are hidden from light, like under the borders of a frame, it slows down polymerization making the paint film more soluble and vulnerable to cleaning solutions.
When I began examining the painting, the varnish was only slightly discolored, the surface was matte lacking proper saturation. Although there had been some prior retouching to address areas of overcleaning, the abrasion was still extensive, and this was especially noticeable around the face which disrupted the soft gradations that are so characteristic to Romney's style. After performing solubility tests under the microscope, I cleaned the painting with a solvent that was found to be safe. In the most recent 1982 treatment, conservators varnished the painting with a synthetic resin which could be safely removed using only aromatic hydrocarbons, without the use of polar solvents.
The majority of my time on this treatment though has been spent in the inpainting phase. Gamblin Conservation Colors, which are stable and reversible were ideal for reconstructing the abraded glazes. I met frequently with my supervisor Dean Yoder (Senior Conservator of Paintings) and with Cory Korkow (Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500-1800), throughout the treatment to consult on how far to take the inpainting. My strategy with the scattered areas of abrasion was to assess the painting in a holistic manner, slowly pulling together overcleaned passages. I worked under magnification using a tiny brush to carefully compensate for missing dots of paint.
There was more to consider when it came time to inpaint the stripped glazes in the dress and the sharp cleaning edge near the shoulder. So, before inpainting the dress, I studied the embedded paint left in the impasto and looked at drapery folds in other Romney paintings. I tested out different approaches to the reconstruction with watercolor first so they could be easily adjusted. The goal was to soften the edge and bring the shadow up. After discussions with Cory and Dean, I took off the watercolor and inpainted with Gamblin.
It's likely that the Portrait of Jane Hoskyns had more glazes or darker shadows that we won't be able to recover, but I hope that my inpainting makes it easier to admire Romney's work instead of getting distracted by abrasion and missing glazes.
— Katie Rovito, WUDPAC Class of 2022
Detail of the stripped glazes and temporary reconstruction of the glazes with watercolor. (Photo credit: Katie Rovito)
Overall front, normal light, after inpainting. (Photo credit: David Brichford)