Conservation of Two Venetian Paintings
The storage rooms of virtually all art museums contain works whose condition prevents them from being on display in the galleries. Changing that circumstance is the role of the art conservator. The Arkansas Arts Center has a delightful pair of small eighteenth-century paintings of Venice that a famous English art collector, Horace Walpole (son of the first Prime Minister of Great Britain and author of the first Gothic Novel), had brought home with him from Venice in 1741. An Arkansas collector had purchased the works more than a hundred years later and eventually left the two paintings to the Arkansas Arts Center.
But after over 270 years of aging and grime accumulation, the original colors of these little oil on canvas paintings were struggling to be seen and appreciated as the artist originally intended. The beauty of The Rialto Bridge
and The Grand Canal
, views of Venice painted by Michele Marieschi in about 1740, were hidden under dirt and layers of yellowed varnish [a protective coating applied over the painting by the artist or later restorers]. The conservators of Norton Arts came to the rescue. They treated the paintings in February 2015. A brief video shows the transformation that brought out the brilliant blue skies and details of architecture and figures that were previously obscured. The newly conserved paintings were included in the current installation of the Jackson T. Stephens Gallery.
All methods for cleaning used by Norton Arts Studio were planned and tested with care before they were put to work on the paintings. While the paintings were still at the Arkansas Arts Center, the conservators unframed the paintings, did a preliminary examination, and conducted some initial tests.
Back at Norton Arts’ Cave Creek Studio, the conservators removed surface dust and debris from the paintings using a special vacuum cleaner. Then the painted surface was cleaned with a solution diluted in non-ionized water applied by microfiber cloths and swabs, followed by a cleaning with purified water. The linen frame liners were treated to remove and kill mold growth. The old, yellowed damar varnish was carefully removed with a chemical mixture applied with microfiber cloths and swabs. Small areas of earlier varnishes were removed with great care, tracking progress through a microscope.
Damaged areas of original paint and paint losses were consolidated to hold delicate areas in place. The entire painting surface was then treated with an isolating coat which created a barrier between the original paint layers applied by the artist Marieschi, and subsequent ‘in-painting’ by the conservator to fill in areas of lost paint. The conservator painstakingly matches the color of the surrounding area so the loss disappears to the naked eye. Using a paint medium which is different from the original surface (such as acrylic or watercolor) future conservators will be able to safely remove the new inpainting without damaging the original paint surface below. Then a light modern varnish was applied to protect the painting.
The frames were conserved and restored. The edges of the paintings where the frames would touch the surface were given a coating to protect the paintings. The paintings were then reframed. Throughout these processes, progress was recorded using digital photography. The Arkansas Arts Center staff members have assembled some of the still documentary photographs to create the brief video below. You will see brief views of various pieces of conservation equipment.
The conserved paintings were placed on view, where visitors to the Arkansas Arts Center will be able to enjoy them for many years to come. The views of Venice that a British tourist brought home over 270 years ago now, once again, vividly record the eighteenth-century Venice that he experienced on the Grand Tour.