Following is the transcript of a recent gallery talk at the Nasher Museum, “Restoring the Beecher Portrait,” with Chapel Hill-based art conservator Ruth Cox and Marshall N. Price, Nancy Hanks Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum. In their talk, they told the story of Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s 1858 portrait of Henry Ward Beecher, repaired extensively for The New Galleries: A Collection Come to Light. Listen to the podcast.
Marshall N. Price: We are really excited to talk with you because we are doing something that we don’t normally do here. We’re not talking necessarily about the history of art but really about the history of the object and its long journey from the bowels of our storage area to the showcased spot here in our gallery.
So I am going to talk for a few minutes about the discovery of the work and how it came to be here in the gallery, and then I’ll hand it over to Ruth and she is going to talk about the treatment of the work and how she really miraculously and really, it was like bringing Lazarus back from the dead, as you’ll see. And how the painting came to be in its current state today.
TOP: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Henry Ward Beecher (detail, before restoration), 1858. Oil on canvas, 34 x 27 inches (86.4 x 68.6 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Gift of T.S. Peterson. ABOVE RIGHT: Detail, after restoration. Photos by Peter Paul Geoffrion. ABOVE: Photo of Ruth Cox and Marshall Price by J Caldwell.
So when I arrived here at the museum a couple years ago it was our director’s really brilliant idea to do a complete re-installation of the museum’s collection situated in this pavilion. So I worked with many of my colleagues here, each one of us taking on specific responsibilities. The American gallery really came under my purview so I began systematically going through the collection and seeing what we had. Much to my delight, we have a wonderful, small, but really nice group of American works of art that can really tell the story of American art from early 1800s to about 1945. And there were a number of discoveries both pleasant and unpleasant during that time as I went through storage.
One of the things that I found as I was going through our database on the computer looking at we had, was this early portrait of Henry Ward Beecher by Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Beecher was a 19th-century portraitist of some renown but certainly not an A-list type of 19th-century portraitist. We had an image of the painting in our database when I first started working on this but I could really not tell anything from the image.
It sort of looks like something out of a horror film, a ghost-type image.
ABOVE: Ghostly image of the Beecher portrait from the museum’s files.
Marshall N. Price: That is what I was working with, but I was excited nevertheless because I knew that a portrait, an early portrait, of Henry Ward Beecher, could be something special. I immediately rushed downstairs to our storage area to look at the portrait in person and I was actually met with this: the portrait wrapped up. It was wrapped up because of some very serious condition issues that it had. So after we were able to have it unwrapped, I had a look at it (see image at the top left of this post). And I was able to recognize some inherent value in the work even though it was in really, really bad condition. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to bring it back to life at that time and that’s when I called Ruth to come in and have a look.
But let me just tell you a little bit about the painting itself. So Henry Ward Beecher, as many of you probably know, was a very important 19th-century preacher. He was the head of the Plymouth Congregation in Brooklyn, a very large congregation. He was a social reformer and an abolitionist and, at one point, even known as the most famous man in America. So learning a little bit about the painting and about Beecher has been fascinating. He had this incredible life.
This man had an incredible life, apparently, but one of the things that struck me when I saw the painting or learned about it in storage was that Beecher was a celebrity in his day, in the middle of the 19th century. This painting dates from 1858. The portrait was painted by Frances Bicknell Carpenter, a 19th century portrait painter. As I mentioned, he was most famous because he was the only painter to paint Lincoln from life. Carpenter spent six months in the White House during Lincoln’s presidency; he was the artist in residence there, and he painted a series of works that really culminated in his sort of grandest painting ever, a painting that documented the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But other than his time in the White House and the publication of his memoirs, which actually were probably better known than some of his paintings, Carpenter is not very well known. And other than the fact that this is a portrait of Beecher, a figure of really great cultural importance, the fact that it is painted by Carpenter doesn’t really mean a whole lot to us, other than it sort of fits in with this other portraits we have in the collection. It’s a nice example of antebellum portraiture to go along with some earlier types of American portraiture.
The last thing I will say about the painting before handing it over to Ruth, is that it came to us in 1972. There wasn’t much of a paper trail in the file and it didn’t have a frame. So one of the things that I was really insistent upon is that it have a frame, an appropriate frame, a period type of frame, a type of frame that it would have had at the time. Ruth and I worked together to do what research we could in terms of the type of frame that it might have had and identified a frame-maker in Washington, D.C., who specializes in 19th-century frames, historic frames. I called him up and told him, ‘We have this portrait by Francis Carpenter of Henry Ward Beecher. It is from 1858 and we would like to have a frame made for it. Can you suggest an appropriate frame, I have a few ideas of my own, but can you suggest something? And he said, ‘Well that’s funny because I am actually working on two frames for two other Frances Bicknell Carpenter paintings as we speak.’ ”
He was able to make a Sully-type frame for this, so you can see it has an oval mat and you can see when we look at some pictures of the painting before treatment that it was actually painted to have had an oval type mat around it. It’s a very plain, nondescript frame.
This was fairly typical of mid 19th-century American frames. Quite plain, you can see that he is quite plainly dressed as well. The frame really fits the presentation of the sitter as well.
You are really here to hear about how this painting came back to life, so I want to hand it over to Ruth and let her take it from here.
Ruth Cox: Thank you very much, Marshall. To begin with, I am going to pass around a few photographs I took before and during treatment. Marshall had warned me, as he told you, that he was dubious that we could make this into a real picture again. I said, “Ah, of course we can.” Give me a challenge, why not?
(Click image below to view larger)
The painting has several types of damage. The big losses that you see, the areas that are light colored in his coat, for instance, are a result of both mechanical damage, which means it was poked, or pushed or prodded or scraped, and water damage. As you can see, the main losses occurred because the picture wasn’t handled and stored properly.
ABOVE: Raking Light Photo by Ruth Cox.
If I go to the next image, you can see a raking light photograph, which is like a glancing light. You can see there are little lines of tented paint that are paint flakes that are raised and unattached to the canvas below. This can happen when the canvas shrinks and the paint becomes detached from the support. There is no longer room for the paint to lie flat. Nineteenth-century canvases can be more moisture responsive than earlier canvases because they are made not only of linen, but often linen and cotton fibers blends. Cotton is more responsive to humidity than is linen. In this case I didn’t do technical analysis on these fibers because it would have been expensive and it would not have helped to provide a solution to the obvious problem.
So from the tenting evidence we could surmise one thing about the making of the picture — that the artist used a typical 19th-century canvas, which was made of mixed fibers.
ABOVE: Photo of the back of the painting by Ruth Cox.
The back of the picture looks like this. You can see there is a signature and a date which tells us a lot about who and when the picture was made, but you can also see the staining from the water damage that occurred later. Unfortunately, we couldn’t turn the picture face down to work on it from the reverse, because the paint would have been crushed or fallen off.
The first thing I had to do – even though it was quite discolored and dirty, as you can see in the pre-treatment photographs, was to feed consolidant (which is a reversible adhesive) underneath all of those little tented bits of paint while viewing picture under the microscope. I also consolidated around the edges of losses and tears so that we wouldn’t lose any more paint. The consolidation helped stabilize the paint so that I could lift it at a 45-degree angle. Then I painted a warm adhesive into the back of the canvas along the lines water damage. The adhesive penetrated all the way from the canvas back, through the ground and up to the back of the paint film.
(Click image below to view larger)
Beecher painted this portrait on a prepared canvas. You can see these white spots and associated holes here at the edge of the canvas. These are an extra set of tack holes. The format of this picture was changed at least once before I started working on it.
ABOVE: Photo of stretcher by Ruth Cox.
Here is another detailed photograph of the reverse showing the stretcher. The old stretcher on which the canvas was stretched had been enlarged. You can see there is an added piece of wood along the outer edge of the stretcher that enlarged the painting’s dimensions. What I think may have happened is that Carpenter painted this portrait very quickly — I’ll explain how I came to that realization in a few minutes — he painted it very quickly and probably didn’t have final dimensions in mind.
He, or possibly a framer, shortly after it was painted, enlarged the painting slightly — possibly to fit an existing frame. That’s why I think there were two sets of holes in the canvas edges.
In order to get consolidant into all of these weak places the painting had to be impregnated with adhesive overall from the reverse. I had to remove the painting from the original stretcher and attach it onto a temporary working strainer. After removing the tacks from the original stretcher, I gently humidified and flattened out the tacking edges. I could then attach a paper edge lining to the painting and temporarily suspend it around the supports so the entire canvas reverse could be accessed.
Before doing overall consolidation I brushed adhesive, from the back, specifically into the areas of tented paint. Then from the front, I used a small tacking iron to carefully work the paint down into a planar conformation. I did that under the microscope. Next I infused the entire reverse with adhesive to stop any future tenting or paint cleavage. Now that the paint was stable I could begin to clean the paint surface.
The image was difficult to read because of the accumulation of dirt and aged varnish. There were also several drips of unknown substances on the surface. Fortunately, all of those layers and later addition came off very readily. It wasn’t a difficult cleaning it just had to be done carefully.
ABOVE: Vacuum hot table. Photo by Ruth Cox.
After it was cleaned, then I could put it on the vacuum hot table which you see here and add a new fabric to the back of the old fabric. Here you can see it being lined on my hot table. Of course before we lined the picture the holes and tears had to be mended. I didn’t want to simply glue loose bits of fabric down onto a new fabric, I wanted first to make sure the old fabric was all re-woven — so thread by thread I rejoined all the tears.
Once the painting was mended it had to be stretched onto a new stretcher. I had a stretcher made by a company in Brooklyn, NY. Because there were two sets of original tack holes there was some question as to what size to make the new stretcher and ultimately the painting. Marshall and I spent a great deal of time talking about a one-eighth-inch difference in the final dimensions.
To see if Carpenter preferred a specific size of canvas I consulted the Smithsonian Institutes Archives of American Paintings. I checked the dimensions of all of Carpenter’s 90 works. Well, guess what? He was completely quixotic. There was very little standardization to his sizing so that didn’t help us.
You know if you go back and you look at early 18th-century paintings, you very frequently will find an artist used the same size stretcher again and again and again. Well, unfortunately Carpenter did not do that so. I found three paintings that were close to our painting’s dimensions, but not exactly the size of our picture. They were also dated 10 years later so that didn’t help us. Finally, Marshall and I decided to simply look at both orientations to see which one aesthetically looked better. We decided on the slightly smaller dimension, which was probably Carpenter’s original format.
In this mid-treatment photograph you can also see there are white lines all over his face. The white material is actually gesso that fills up cracks in the paint film. The reason the paint cracked is related to the fact that he painted the picture very quickly and in doing so didn’t mix his paints properly.
In the corners of the picture you can see this transparent brown paint, which was thinly applied. This layer was painted with a lot of diluent and not a lot of oil. Carpenter sketched the entire composition in this transparent brown paint. After the basic forms were defined he worked the paint film towards the final image using more and more oil and more opaque colored paint. The wide aperture cracks indicate that he used a bit too much diluent rather than oil in his final layers. He probably did this to quicken the drying time. Diluent evaporates out of a paint film more quickly than oil dries. But to create a sound paint film you need enough oil. Well what happened in his face, was that the paint had pulled apart in drying because there wasn’t enough oil binder. These cracks, which are now filled with white gesso, had been hidden by the dirt layer and old restorer’s paint prior to cleaning.
If you look at the actual picture, you can see he used a relatively wide brush and painted with gusto. Some areas, such as his face, are blended nicely, wet into wet. But in many areas the direction and quality of the brushstroke define the form and the brushwork is less smoothly blended. There’s some glazing in his cheeks and obviously he built up his layers but he didn’t wait for the underlying layers to dry before adding more paint. This work is not like a quattrocento panel that has many, many layers of paint that were applied after the underlying layer of paint dried. Scientists have found that Leonardo da Vinci applied up to 40 layers of paint on some pictures. This painting was painted in what we call a direct painting technique.
Once I had removed the dirt and the old retouching, the cracks were very unsightly. So I filled them with a gesso-like material to bring the cracks up to the level of the surrounding surface. I used white-colored gesso in the face and brown colored gesso in his coat to facilitate the inpainting of the picture. In this photograph you can see watercolor underpaint, which has toned the gesso.
Marshall N. Price: And Ruth, why do you use watercolor?
Ruth Cox: Ah, I like watercolor. All conservators have their own technique of how they like to retouch or do the restoration work on a painting. I like to do a lot of my under-painting and inpainting in watercolor because it reverses very easily. All of the materials I have used on this picture, from consolidant and the lining to the retouching paint can all be taken out and off this picture. So everything I’ve added, if it ages poorly or there is some defect in the future, can be taken off without damaging the original picture. Watercolor underpaint is a very clean, precise way to apply paint. You can get a really beautiful undertone. On top of the watercolor I use a resinous restorer’s paint, which is readily reversible. This resinous paint is not as precise as watercolor. So I like to use that only as final glazing and toning at the end.
So getting back to this picture and the framing issues — Marshall and I spent time deciding how small or large to make this oval mat. If you look carefully at the picture, it is a little unclear as to where Carpenter wanted his final edges to be on this picture. We know the corners were definitely covered by a spandrel and that he wanted an oval format, but the precise dimensions of the oval are blurred.
Remember how Carpenter used transparent brown under-paint to sketch out the form? Well, in the background he just added a thin opaque layer — what we call a scumble – to achieve the final gray-green color. If you look at the corners where the least amount of the opaque layer was added, you can see it was rubbed off in a linear pattern by rough surface of the original spandrel. Look carefully at the photo and you can see how thin that paint is as it nears the edges. Carpenter let the composition fall off because he knew he was going to put an oval format.
This is how the painting looked after treatment. Better I hope! I’ll show you one last thing because I don’t think you’ve had a chance to see the reverse. This is what the back looked like with the new stretcher and the lining canvas. The lining canvas unfortunately is very unaesthetic, but it is very practical. The fabric is a monofilament plain weave polyester fabric – much like silk screening fabric.
Did you choose this fabric because you can see through it to view the inscription?
That was part of the reason I chose this fabric. It is translucent. Another reason was that it has what we call a high modulus, which in layman’s terms means it’s really stiff. Its not going to respond at all to climate changes so it’s going to be really stable through time regardless of fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity. Of course the inscription is not as legible after lining, so I took many photographs of the back before I lined it.
One of the mysteries surrounding this picture is that there is a purposeful damage right here in his chest. If you come and look at the picture when we are done talking, you will notice that there is a small white dot near this old damage. What is this white dot? Why is it there? There’s actually a dark extension coming off the white dot down here if you look at this area under the microscope. I think these marks represented a pin that was holding something on the breast of his jacket. The large surrounding loss was probably and intentional damage — someone wanted to remove whatever badge or symbol was on his jacket.
I asked Marshall if he had figured out what possibly could have been pinned to his jacket – but unfortunately he didn’t have any ideas. I looked through all kinds of buttons and political badges from this period of time but haven’t found anything that would be appropriate. In 1856, Beecher was known to have sent rifles down to the South to help the Abolitionists. This shipment was called ‘Beecher’s bibles’ but they were actually rifles. He had solicited the funds for these rifles from his congregation to help the abolitionists with the fight against slavery. But badges or tokens don’t fit with in with this story. The shape of the loss however, suggests a carnation to me – but why would anyone be against Beecher wearing a carnation?
One minor anecdotal fact I found out about Beecher when I was reading, is that he was the first minister in Brooklyn to actually put flowers in his church. He loved flowers. So it wouldn’t be completely out of the realm of possibility that he had some kind of flower on his jacket. That is just my thought, it has nothing to do with reality but it has kept me awake at night wondering. One of the beauties of a mystery that can’t be answered is that there is no wrong answer.