There are many contributing factors, but the most significant may include the rise of abstract painting at the end of Abbey's life, leading many to consider his history paintings antiquated. In addition, few of his paintings are on display in British or American museums, making his work largely inaccessible. This is not to say that Abbey paintings are few; it just so happens that most of them are in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, given by Abbey's widow in the 1930s and rarely exhibited since. But Abbey's day has finally arrived, and under the curatorial direction of Dr. Mark Mitchell, Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Dr. Lisa Hodermarsky, Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, Abbey's works will enchant new audiences in an upcoming exhibition titled American Renaissance.
As a paintings conservation intern in the conservation department at the Yale University Art Gallery, supervised by chief conservator Ian McClure, my main projects this year focus on the treatment of Abbey paintings for this exciting exhibition. The first painting I will treat is an oil-on-canvas study for a mural commission that Abbey completed for the Harrisburg State Courthouse in Pennsylvania. The study is titled The Spirit of Light and depicts two women soaring gracefully upwards into the sky. Viewers are instantly stunned by the painting's beauty, with its organic composition, strong coloring, and diverse paint handling that transitions from lively impasto to spontaneous, dripping washes.
As I began my internship at Yale less than two months ago, I am currently in the examination and documentation phase, and have not yet begun treatment. But discussing the condition issues of this painting will outline some fascinating avenues for scientific research, as well as some challenging treatment goals.
The Spirit of Light Study is currently unstretched and has been stored for many years at the gallery around a large-diameter roll. The painting will require stretching onto a custom-made stretcher for upright viewing and display. To safely achieve this, the work will likely require humidification at elevated relative humidity conditions to reduce canvas deformations and achieve planarity. To withstand the stress of stretching, the tacking edges (the edges of the canvas that wrap around the stretcher bar to hold the painting to the stretcher) will likely require reinforcement. This can be accomplished by adhering an extra piece of fabric to the edges of the painting to lend greater strength.
After the painting is stretched, the next challenge will be safely removing the many years of grime and particulates from the surface. In addition to grime, large areas of the surface are covered with a white powdery material called "efflorescence." This efflorescence is seen on many of Abbey's works in the Yale collection, in some cases being so severe as to entirely obscure the painted surface, and in other cases so minor that the efflorescence is visible only under high magnification. In the case of the Spirit of Light Study, the efflorescence is concentrated mostly in the brown and green paint layers, drastically affecting the tonality and sheen of the work.
What this white powder is, and why it forms on the surface of so many of Abbey's works, is still very much a mystery. In some cases, it appears to follow form or brush strokes. In other cases, it appears in random, amorphous patches across the surface. The efflorescence appears on both canvas and panel supports, prepared with a variety of grounds and painted with great variation in technique. With the aid of conservators at the Yale art gallery and scientists at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale's West Campus, my research this year will aim to identify what the efflorescence is, where it is coming from, what is causing the reaction, and, finally, how it can be safely removed from the painting during treatment. Wish me luck!
— Kelsey Wingel, WUDPAC Class of 2018