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News Student Blog: The Barnes Foundation

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​Left: WUDPAC Class of 2018 Fellow Mina Porell removing discolored varnish from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes's Dramatic Poetry. Right: Photomacrograph of Aeschylus's right elbow (6.7x total magnification), showing the pronounced weave pattern and brushwork.. (All images: Mina Porell.)

With a rough, irregular texture and the color of mustard, the walls of the Barnes Foundation galleries are quite unusual for an art museum. Yet in this one, where Dr. Barnes arranged his collection meticulously with an eye for color, line, light, and space, the burlap wall covering lends an additional dimension to the viewer's perception of the artwork. Now half-way through my internship at the Foundation, which is part of my third year as a WUDPAC fellow, I am finding myself in the strange position to ponder Dr. Barnes's peculiar choice of wall covering and its relationship to the painting that is the focus of my main treatment here: Dramatic Poetry (Aeschylus) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

On my first day at the Barnes back in September, I walked through the galleries with my supervisor Barbara Buckley, Senior Director of Conservation and Chief Conservator of Paintings. Making sure to stay "behind the lines," as the museum's strict preventive measures dictate, I took in the elaborate ensembles of Modern and Old Master paintings, metalwork, African art, furniture, and decorative arts, arranged by Dr. Barnes according his vision of formal relationships. Even though in 2005 the museum moved from its original home in Merion to its new Platinum LEED-certified building on Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway, today every painting and object occupies the precise location in the galleries, where the famed collector placed it before his death in 1951.

As Barbara and I entered Room 3, she briefly paused; at our right was Dramatic Poetry, still hanging in its permanent location on the gallery's south wall, awaiting my arrival. I immediately recognized the classicizing theme, restricted palette of whites and blues, and the lively brushwork of nineteenth-century French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. A quick glimpse at the surface of the painting, and I knew the kinds of challenges I would have to face in its treatment: an uneven, discolored, and glossy varnish, a large, visible tear repair, and numerous old retouches which did not match the surrounding original colors. And while these conservation concerns suddenly seemed too obvious to ignore, I also noted that Puvis's pale pastel tones, now muted and earthy under the degraded natural-resin varnish, harmonized quite well with the mustard yellow of the burlap-covered wall. With this curious thought, I had already begun to formulate several questions that would guide my treatment decisions in the months ahead.

​​Pierre Puvis de Chavannes's Dramatic Poetry, before treatment, normal illumination (left), and during varnish removal, under normal illumination (center) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right). (All images: Mina Porell.)

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 similarity.

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

​​Pierre Puvis de Chavannes's Dramatic Poetry, during varnish removal, normal illumination (left) and ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (right).

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2018 Fellow Mina Porell shares her research and treatment experience with collections at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2018 Fellow Mina Porell shares her research and treatment experience with collections at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489