Two charming portraits by Betsy Graves were brought to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) for treatment from the private collection of Anthony Davenport, a client who expressed fond memories of the artist creating her works-- even throughout the exercise of patience experienced as an adolescent having his portrait drawn. One portrait is an image of Mr. Davenport’s mother, a painting entitled Portrait of Barbara Davenport; the other is a drawing of Mr. Davenport himself, entitled Portrait of Tony Davenport at age thirteen. These images are faithful representations of the sitters and deft examples of art works made by Betsy Graves. Insight into the artist and the story of their creation illustrates a true bond of friendship and family. The treatment of these works underlines the importance of the arts in culture and the value of conservation in maintaining these stories.

Betsy Graves, also known as Betsy Graves Reyneau, was born in 1888 in Battle Creek, Michigan, and was raised in Detroit. She attended the Boston Art Museum School in pursuit of a career in Fine Art. She then spent several years in France before returning to the United States in the 1930s. In addition to her career as an artist, she was an activist for the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage [1]. She is identified in several photographs from 1916 in the National Woman’s Party’s collections as a street speaker for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (U.S.) [2]. In 1917 she was one of the first women arrested for picketing the White House while protesting President Wilson’s anti-suffrage stance. When she lived in France, Graves and her daughter opened their home to Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis. Upon her return to the States in the 1930s, she continued her efforts as an activist while advocating for the civil rights movement. Graves was commissioned in 1944 by the Hammond Foundation, along with artist Laura Wheeler Waring, to paint fifty portraits of prominent African Americans. Graves is known for her oil portraits of George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Martin Luther King, Jr., amongst others. Many of her portrait paintings are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery as well as the National Woman’s Party Fine Art Collection [3].
The Painting
Portrait of Barbara Davenport (fig. 1) is executed in oil paint on an oil-primed, plain-weave linen canvas. The canvas is mounted to a generic four-member stretcher by staples, visible along the tacking margins.The number “25” is visible in black paint, stenciled onto the proper-right stretcher bar to indicate the length of the member (25 inches). The canvas is fully intact without structural damage, though scattered staining and overall oxidation of the canvas is visible on the reverse due to the oil priming layer. The reverse of the painting also reveals large slubs and irregular fibers throughout the linen. While fabrics produced from natural fibers often showcase a number of inclusions, the degree of irregularities in this canvas indicate a sub-par quality fabric when compared to traditional fine-art canvases. A raw selvage-edge of the fabric is visible on the reverse, secured to the proper-left stretcher member. Interestingly, lacing holes are visible along this selvage edge. These holes were created when the raw canvas was temporarily stretched and prepped with its priming layer in anticipation of being used as a painting support. Subtle cusping, a scalloping pattern created in the fabric when the raw canvas reacts to preparation while under tension, is visible on the canvas verso and refers to this priming of the canvas. The precise manner in which the painting support was prepared reveals Graves’ commitment to her craft; the specific materials she used reminds one of the austere realities afforded to American artists immediately post-WWII with a lack of quality artist’s materials available on the market.
FIGURE 1 . Betsy Graves, Portrait of Barbara Davenport, 1947, oil on canvas, 25" (H) x 20" (W). Click to view a larger image
Another impressive feature regarding the structure and display of the painting is that it arrived at the WACC in its original frame, having never been modified over the course of its seventy-plus years in the family’s possession. An extant paper label adhered to the reverse of the frame reveals that it was procured from “Braxton Picture Frames”, a framing shop once situated at 353 East 58th Street in New York City. The wooden frame displays a textured gesso surface toned with a greyish-brown wash and a painted accent cove in green. It is estimated that Betsy Graves specifically chose the green accent on the frame to directly reference the painting. The rendering of Barbara Davenport’s green dress and the green washes within the background of the painting are strengthened and highlighted by this detail on the chosen frame. This pairing of painting and frame displays the careful consideration and personalization by Betsy Graves in her gift of appreciation to Barbara Davenport.

The unvarnished painting had a moderate accumulation of surface grime, scattered pinpoint losses of paint, and a fine network of drying cracks. The surface was cleaned with a mild aqueous solution before a thin layer of varnish was applied to the surface. The varnish used was mixed from two synthetic resins, Paraloid™ B-72 and Laropal® A 81. The decision to apply a surface coating to this unvarnished painting was made for several reasons, relating to both the structural and cosmetic condition. The Paraloid™ B-72 component of the varnish solution will act as a consolidant to instances of pinpoint losses scattered throughout the paint layer. Paraloid™ B-72 is a stable and well-researched material, frequently used as an adhesive and varnish in art conservation.

The initial varnish layer also acts as an isolation barrier for the original paint layer, separating it from the watercolors used to tone out pinpoint losses and distracting patches of fine-aperture drying cracks. The second resin used in the varnish solution, Laropal® A 81, is a non-yellowing, aldehyde resin also commonly used in art conservation. Laropal® A 81 is excellent at saturating paintings due to its low molecular weight, filling in all the miniscule nooks and crannies in the surface of the paint layer. The retouching was sealed in with a final thin layer of the varnish solution, fully saturating the colors of the painting and adding another layer of protection for the painting’s surface. A Coroplast® (inert corrugated polyester board) backing board was attached to the stretcher verso as protection from dust and damage, the frame rebate was padded with polyester felt and the painting was reframed with new hardware. The completed treatment of Portrait of Barbara Davenport allows for a much clearer and immediate experience of the painting. The saturated jewel-tones of the palette imbue a visual richness and regal character to this portrait painted by Betsy Graves as a token of respect to her friend.This painting has now been handed down to Barbara Davenport’s granddaughter, hanging in a position of honor in the family home.
The Drawing

Portrait of Tony Davenport at age thirteen (figs. 2-3) is executed in compressed charcoal on handmade, laid paper. This type of paper has a distinctive ribbed surface texture (fig. 4) created by the type of paper mold used to form the sheet. Laid paper is commonly used for charcoal drawings because the tooth of the surface texture allows for better attachment of the friable media to the paper. It also creates a dappled effect in the drawn line that mimics the play of light on a surface.

FIGURE 2. Betsy Graves, Portrait of Tony Davenport at age thirteen , c. mid 20th c., Charcoal on laid, INGRES ARCHES paper, 22" (H) X 16 3/16" (W)
After Treatment, Click to view a larger image
When the artwork was unframed, a second blank piece of paper was found inserted between the back of the drawing and the frame backing. Further examination of the second sheet revealed that it was the same kind of paper that was used for the drawing. A watermark that reads, “MBM MADE IN FRANCE INGRES D’ARCHES,” was found in the second sheet (fig. 4). This watermark was in use from 1869 to the early twentieth century and indicates that the paper is handmade by the Arches French papermill [4]. Ingres d’Arches is a line of high-quality papers made by Arches and inspired by the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and his use of materials for drawing. This was an exciting discovery that provides valuable information about the artists’ sensitivity for materials in her work. Ms. Graves experience living in France may be linked to her choice of paper.
FIGURE 4 . Detail of the French watermark found on the paper
A Tale of Two Portraits | The Preservation of a Pair of Family Heirlooms
The drawing suffered from several condition issues commonly found in aged works on paper. The physical attachment can be easily disrupted with slight vibration, abrasion, and static charge. The paper was moderately discolored with a significant amount of distracting foxing stains. This type of staining can be caused by metal impurities or mold spores in the paper; it is characterized by a circular shaped stain with diffuse edges, a red to brown color, and a scattered distribution across the paper like freckles. A water stain was present along the bottom edge and the paper was also slightly cockled (a form of wave-like planar distortions that form in paper when exposed to moisture or fluctuating humidity levels). Fortunately, the media was in good condition despite the friable nature of charcoal that is held precariously in place by a loose, physical attachment to the paper fibers. The friability of the media informed how treatment was conducted and how the work would be mounted to maintain the integrity of the media. Treatment began with gentle surface cleaning of the paper, carefully avoiding the media. A series of blotter washes were conducted to reduce discoloration and acidity in the paper. This was followed by a mild solution of ammonium citrate dibasic, which is a chelating agent that helps reduce foxing staining related to the presence of harmful metal impurities. It was decided to further reduce some of the more distracting foxing stains with a low percentage reducing bleach. Once stain reduction was completed, the drawing was thoroughly rinsed in several alkaline rinses to remove any residual chemicals from the chelating and reductive bleaching steps. The alkaline rinsing also deposits calcium in the paper improving stability by preventing excessive buildup of acidity in the paper over time, slowing the aging process. Once the aqueous treatments were completed, the drawing was dried in a controlled manner to flatten the paper. The treatment has reduced acidity levels and staining in the paper to aid in stabilizing the artwork and increasing the contrast in the drawing (fig.3).

The next important step in the treatment of the portrait was to create conservation grade housing that will allow Mr. Davenport to safely exhibit his drawing in his home. The drawing was mounted in a 100% cotton rag, alkaline buffered window mat. The matted drawing was sealed between TruVue® Optium® Museum Acrylic glazing and a Coroplast® backing with a foil-lined polyester tape. Optium® Museum Acrylic filters ultraviolet light, is, anti-reflective, and, most importantly for this charcoal drawing, anti-static. The anti-static property of this glazing is important as it will not cause media loss of the friable charcoal media. The mounting method creates a microclimate that will protect the artwork from damage from UV, air pollutants, soil, moisture, and fluctuating environmental conditions. Despite being executed in two different mediums, the hand of Betsy Graves is clearly visible in both art works. There is a fluid sureness of movement shown in the lines drawn and shapes formed. The blurred definition of shadows and subtle luminosity of highlights is similarly rendered in each image. The likenesses between portraits can also be attributed to the familial connections of the two sitters: mother and son. The manner in which Betsy Graves depicted each sitter is mirrored in her rendering of facial traits and body structure, all strong indicators that these figures are related. The semblances in Graves’ handling of charcoal on paper and oil paint on canvas are signs of a well-practiced artist. Her artistic competency is further reinforced by the choices she made in materials and techniques, discovered during our treatments. The sitters have a strong presence that speaks to Graves’ sensitivity to her subjects and mastery of materials, allowing her to express the character of her subjects through subtle physical cues in expression and posture.

The WACC would like to thank Mr. Davenport for agreeing to let us share these treatments with you in the Art Conservator.
Michigan Hall Of Fame-Michigan Women Forward. “Betsy Graves Reyneau.” Accessible at:
National Women’s Party. Collections: Betsy Graves Reyneau.” Accessible at:
National Portrait Gallery. “Breaking Racial Barriers: African Americans in the Harmon Foundation Collection.” Accessible at:
Arches Paper. “About Us: History.” Accessible at: