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.
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.