A current paintings conservation project, made possible by a generous grant from the Alumnae of Northwestern, has opened the door to learning more about John Singer Sargent, his lifelong friendship with Charles Deering, and the story behind the creation of one of Sargent’s last large scale society portraits.
Charles Deering (1852-1927) was a renowned art collector, friend and patron of many leading artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. He collected significant works by lifelong friends such as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Lucien Simon. The library holds twelve paintings donated by the Deering family to be displayed in the Charles Deering Memorial Library when it opened in 1933. Of these paintings, John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Augustus Allhusen, a portrait of Dorothy Stanley Allhusen painted at Sargent’s London studio in the autumn of 1907, is one of the best known and most appreciated.
When the painting was surveyed in 2013 as part of a larger collection survey, it was noted that the existing natural resin varnish had yellowed, dulling the tonal qualities of the painting. It was decided that removing or thinning the varnish layer and applying a fresh synthetic resin varnish layer, a common practice in paintings conservation, would allow viewers to once again see the painting as Sargent intended it to look when he created it over 100 years ago. In addition, repairing areas of minor distortion to the canvas will stabilize the painting and allow it to be displayed once again in Deering Library or loaned for exhibitions at institutions worldwide when requested.
We have noted often on this blog that the changing nature of library collections calls for a more collaborative approach to collections conservation. Northwestern’s location allows us to work with a diverse and talented group of allied professionals in the Chicago area. In the case of the Sargent painting, we are pleased to be working once again with Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC. Cynthia Kuniej Berry and her staff have consulted on other projects at Northwestern and carried out the initial survey of the paintings collection in 2013. Associate Paintings Conservator Emily Prehoda is cleaning the Sargent and has provided treatment information and photographs included in this post.
During the early stages of treatment, the painting was removed from its frame and photographed under ultraviolet illumination.
Photography under ultraviolet light can be particularly useful, as it allows the conservator to distinguish areas of past treatment or, in this case, the extent of varnish application. In the photo above, note the hazy green fluorescence, indicating a brush-applied natural resin type varnish. Small areas of old retouching are visible as dark marks that block fluorescence of the varnish.
One of the first stages of the conservation treatment involved removing surface grime prior to thinning the yellowed varnish.
During surface cleaning, a cotton swab was used to remove dust and grime from the painting’s surface. Surface cleaning alone can have a dramatic effect on the tonal qualities of a painting. The cotton swab was photographed against a white background in order to illustrate the amount of surface grime being removed.
Discussing the next step in the process, Emily Prehoda explains, “I’ll use the term “varnish thinning” versus “varnish removal” to indicate that the thick varnish layer is gradually being reduced overall, rather than removed completely all at once. This allows me to better consider the painting’s nuances, and the balance of shadows and highlights during the cleaning process. The varnish is thicker and heavier in the dark areas. This may be due to the artist selectively applying more varnish in dark areas to increase saturation, or a previous conservator selectively cleaning and re-varnishing the light and dark areas to different levels. Varnish thinning helps to ensure that an even, consistent varnish layer is being removed, and no areas of the artist’s possible re-working of the painting are sensitive to solvents or being adversely affected in any way.”
To illustrate her initial progress, Emily prepared the following images to highlight the effects of varnish thinning.
During varnish thinning, the area left/below the green line has been thinned, and the right/upper side has not yet been cleaned. Note the improved saturation of colors and clarity of details in the cleaned area.
As Emily proceeds with the conservation treatment, ongoing research at Northwestern has focused on learning more about the painting and how it came into Charles Deering’s collection. We know that the painting was exhibited at the National Portrait Society in London in 1919 and believe that it was acquired by Charles Deering shortly thereafter. Additional research has focused on Dorothy Allhusen and her lifelong friendship with the English novelist Thomas Hardy. Mrs. Allhusen’s correspondence with both Sargent and Hardy documents the process of sitting for the portrait as well as Mrs. Allhusen’s initial impressions of the painting itself.
Once the treatment is completed, the Northwestern University Libraries will host a reception to unveil the newly conserved Mrs. Augustus Allhusen and to recognize the support of the Alumnae of Northwestern in preserving this important painting.