Jan 132016

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.


May 292015


Earlier this month, Preservation Department staff attended the American Institute for Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works (AIC) annual meeting in Miami, FL. Conservators Stephanie Gowler and Susan Russick presented two 5-minute talks during the pre-conference STASH FLASH Tips Session. STASH – which stands for Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History Collections – is a website where collection care professionals across all fields can share tips on creating safe and appropriate storage solutions for collection materials.

Stephanie and Susan shared examples of how the Preservation Department at Northwestern adapts traditional methods of documentation, housing, and labeling for non-traditional library materials. Last week’s blog post summarized the first presentation, outlining the department’s protocol for housing objects in the library’s distinctive collections. Today’s post summarizes the second presentation, about using a smartphone app to document condition issues during a collection survey.

As highlighted on this blog during Preservation Week, a comprehensive survey of Northwestern’s painting collection is underway. Phase One of the survey assessed approximately a dozen of the most significant paintings – those collected by Charles Deering. These paintings have high exhibition value and are considered “Special Collections” paintings. Since conservators on staff are trained in book and paper conservation, the library contracts with local paintings conservators and art handlers to survey, treat, and store these paintings.

Phase Two of the painting survey, currently underway, is focused on the roughly 75 “General Collections” paintings stored throughout the library. These are primarily portraits of former professors, deans, and university trustees painted by local artists. The university has no plans to display them and they are likely to remain in permanent storage. If that situation ever changes, paintings specialists will be brought in; in the meantime, these paintings are cared for in-house. The Preservation Department is documenting their condition and improving storage.


As last week’s post explained, everything in the library’s collections has to fit on standard size shelves. This means that, until long-term specialty storage plans come to fruition, large framed oil paintings are stored on pallets in many different areas and buildings. Staff traipsed to the storage areas instead of bringing the painting to the lab. Because of this, a streamlined way to annotate images of the paintings was necessary in order to indicate the most significant condition issues. These images would be included in a FilemakerPro database alongside the completed survey form, as well as printed out and attached to the wrapped paintings where they would serve as cautionary labels for anyone handling the works in the future.

Articheck, an app specifically designed for documentation of museum collections, was initially considered. The app’s advantages included allowing notes to be made directly on the digital image and indicating the severity of damage. However, many of the features were either redundant or too specific for this particular project.

Notability, a note-taking app that is frequently used in educational settings, offered more flexibility. It is easy to use and is very customizable.

For the survey of “General Collections” paintings, preservation staff members take a photo of the painting with a smartphone or tablet, open the Notability app, create a new note, and import the photo.


Next, the custom-designed “stoplight” key is imported into the same note. Creating this key took some time to develop, but the advantage of creating a key that reflects the level detail needed for this specific project is that a new key could easily be developed for a different survey or disaster response situation.


The red, yellow, and green colors indicate priority or severity of the condition issue. The highlighter tool is used for media issues, a dotted pencil line is used for support issues, and a solid pencil line is used for stretcher or frame issues. Once the image has been annotated, the note can be exported as a PDF. A digital copy of the file is saved in the FilemakerPro database record for that painting, and a hard copy is attached to the wrapped painting alongside the identification label.


The painting survey is ongoing, and the department continues to experiment with various features of the app. Using Notability has streamlined the survey process considerably and it has a lot of potential for efficient note-taking and labeling, especially in disaster, triage, and large collection survey situations.


May 012015


This spring, the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department curated the exhibit “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which highlights some of the Library’s rare and interesting objects that have received conservation attention in the past few years. In celebration of Preservation Week (April 26 – May 2, 2015), the blog will feature daily posts highlighting exhibit objects that posed some of the more complex research questions and interesting treatment decisions.

Charles Deering (1852-1927), for whom Deering Library was named, was an avid art collector and artist in his own right. In addition to collecting Spanish and Catalan art, Deering formed lasting friendships with many of the leading artists of his day and amassed a rich collection of portraits by close friends such as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Ramon Casas. Many of the paintings from Charles Deering’s personal collection were chosen to decorate Deering Library when it opened in 1933 and remain important works in the University Library’s collection.

The library’s painting of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas (El Bohemio, 1891) is one of our most requested paintings for loan and exhibition and recently underwent an extensive conservation treatment. Northwestern contracted with a local fine art conservator to perform the treatment.

El Bohemio, 1891. Portrait of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas. After treatment, unframed.

El Bohemio, 1891. Portrait of Erik Satie by Ramon Casas. After treatment, unframed.

In addition to repairs to the canvas, a varnish layer applied in the 1970s was removed. Polyvinyl acetate (PVA) was commonly used to varnish paintings in the 1970s. Over time, the PVA becomes gray and opaque and, as a result, the painting had taken on a hazy appearance. After conservators removed the PVA varnish, they noticed that there were still areas of the painting with a dull gray appearance. Sample testing and examination using a range of analytical tools, including scanning electron microscopy and Raman spectroscopy, indicated that these gray areas were likely a result of lead sulfate migrating up through the paint from the ground layer. The lead sulfate, which is insoluble in alcohol and other common conservation solvents, could not be removed. In order to minimize the visual disturbance of the lead sulfate, the decision was made to apply a thin wash of translucent pigment on top of the new Paraloid B-72 varnish layer in the gray areas. This is a reversible treatment that reflects the artist’s intent and allows the true colors of the painting to show through.


The painting was featured last year in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The exhibit, Esprit Montmartre: Bohemian Life in Paris around 1900, looked at Montmartre as a center of artistic life with a particular focus on individuals like Satie and Casas.

The Esprit Montmartre exhibition provided an opportunity to share El Bohemio with a large audience at an international venue after its recent conservation treatment. The exhibition also promoted Northwestern’s unique library collections in a global environment.

The Preservation Department is currently working on a comprehensive survey of other paintings in the collection in order to develop a plan for preserving Charles Deering’s legacy as an art collector.