Since that day, my examination, research, and treatment of the painting have brought new light to its technology and history. Right before it entered the collection in 1914, less than two decades after its creation, Dramatic Poetry was freshly restored in France upon Dr. Barnes's request. At that time, its blues probably still shimmered in shades of azure and lavender, more closely reflecting the artist's careful color choices. However, the sheen of the painting's surface must have already been altered significantly by layers of natural-resin restoration varnish. This thick coating would have been at odds with Puvis's style even before it discolored so dramatically within a few decades; by the end of the nineteenth century, he was already famous for large-scale murals and their dry, fresco-like tones, carefully harmonized with the interior spaces for which they were specifically commissioned. The matte effect was paramount to the artist's decorative esthetic, and he would have shunned the glossy and saturating qualities of resin varnishes.
As a reduced version of one of the only monumental painting cycles by Puvis outside of France (at the Boston Public Library), Dramatic Poetry
depicts an Arcadian vision of human knowledge and enlightenment. Puvis
chose the blue, lavender, and warm grey tones of his paint, supplemented
by lavish amounts of white, to complement the library's Grand Staircase
and its marble interior. He applied his paint dryly, in visible brush
strokes that skip across the weave of the canvas, not negating, but
embracing the materiality of the painting's primary support. This
"weavism," to use Dr. Stoner's term, and Puvis's deliberate choice to
leave his works unvarnished, have been recognized as important sources
of inspiration for a rising generation of modern artists at the turn of
the century who rejected the highly-finished, glossy surfaces of the Old
Masters and academics.
Bearing these important discoveries in
mind, I am now well into my treatment of the work. After removing a thin
layer of grey surface grime, I am in the process of reducing the
discolored varnish and heavy-handed overpaint as much as safely
possible. The result is rewarding, as I slowly lift the yellow haze off
the crisp hues underneath. And as the thick resin rolls off onto my
swab, it is also freeing the deep interstices of the painting, restoring
the airiness of the surface and the lightness of Puvis's brushwork.
This has brought a new revelation, or perhaps a serendipitous
coincidence: removing the varnish is most certainly shifting the
tonality of the image back to its original vibrancy and away from the
mustard ochre of the walls; yet just as surely, it is revealing the
prominent weave texture, now harmonizing not with marble and stucco, but
with the museum's burlap-covered interior. I'd like to think that if
this textural analogy was not an intentional element of Dr. Barnes's
selection, at least he would have delighted in the fortuitous
Encouraged by the promising results of these important
first treatments steps, I am looking forward to bringing this project
to conclusion in the next three months. With the varnish and overpaint
removed, I will address the areas of old fills and retouching and adjust
them to better match the color and texture of the surrounding original.
In keeping with the artist's original intent, the painting will remain
unvarnished and protected under conservation-grade glazing. It will then
return to its forever home in Room 3, where you would be able to enjoy
its harmony of white and blue at your next visit. Just make sure to stay
behind the line!
—Mina Porell, WUDPAC Class of 2018