RESTRUCTURE : Unpacking the treatments of two lined portraits
To those of us behind the scenes, particularly paintings conservators, identifying paintings as lined or unlined in museum galleries becomes an unconscious challenge, a checklist to set upon guided by our own skill set. Even an untrained eye is influenced in their visual interpretation of a painting that has been lined, with frequent comments overheard from surprised gallery-goers on how flat and rigid a hundreds-of-years-old painting can look on a museum wall. While the ultimate purpose behind lining paintings is rooted in necessity (barring outdated prophylactic measures), the result of such interventive structural treatments greatly influences our seeing of these paintings— whether we realize it or not. Most paintings on canvas in this collection had been lined during several historic batch-treatment campaigns, and therefore, displayed similar aging properties and signs of deterioration. The Albany Institute of History and Art (AIHA) has retained a cache of reports documenting the extensive treatment histories spanning the 1940s-1970s, which give us crucial information to guide our current approaches. Initial campaigns carried out linings (secondary support), followed by later interventions to reverse these treatments and reline; this was done to varying degrees and using various materials. This cycle of structural treatment is inevitable the moment a painting has been lined and is frequently carried out in our paintings studio at the WACC. Two lined portraits in the AIHA collection, that of Magdalena Helena Veeder and Edward Collins as a Youth, both have unique lining histories and are attributed to artists minimally represented in the collection— Pieter Vanderlyn (c. 1687—1778) and The Pierpont Limner (c. 1710—1716) (figs.1-2). My treatment of the two paintings balanced consideration of the necessary structural steps with the subsequent visual impact in the museum’s galleries— all while unpacking the layers of past treatments to reveal a more authentic representation of the artists’ hands envisioning their patrons’ image.
FIGURE 1. Pieter Vanderlyn, Magdalena Helena Veeder, oil on canvas, before treatment
FIGURE 2. The Pierpont Limner, Edward Collins as a Youth, oil on canvas, Albany Institute of History and Art, before treatment
The hand of the itinerant painter, Pieter Vanderlyn, has been identified by a certain flatness of form, decorated with patterns of line and color to embolden shape. His rendering of patrons squarely posits him in the realm of folk art; however, the structural treatment of his paintings can visually exaggerate and reduce his considerate images to somewhat naive two-dimensional limitations within the picture plane. Before treatment at the WACC, the portrait of Magdalena Helena Veeder (fig.1) was a clear example of extreme rigidity when looking at a lined painting, literally so as the canvas had been mounted to a solid support in 1975. This treatment had been state of the art at the time, carefully documented and carried out by conservators at the then-titled Smithsonian Institution Analytical Laboratory (currently known as the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute [MCI]) [1-2]. An interleaf, using a fiberglass-polyester fiber mat, was adhered between the original canvas support and the aluminum honeycomb panel (figs. 3-5). With complex tears present in the center of the canvas, embrittlement from past cleanings, and a 1953 strip-lining failing along the canvas margins, a heavy-duty rigid lining support had been chosen to carry the delicate and damaged original support. Despite being structurally stable forty-five years on, it was clear that this treatment had not aged well, and the incomplete cosmetics were exacerbating the flatness imparted by a ⅝”-thick aluminum honeycomb core panel.
FIGURE 3. The reverse of Magdalena Helena Veeder, before treatment.
FIGURE 4. A profile of a rigid, aluminum honeycomb panel.
FIGURE 5. A during treatment image showing the removal of the wax-impregnated interleaf that acted as a separation barrier between the honeycomb panel and the painting
In addition to the rigid support and extensive abrasion throughout the background and painted framing spandrels, the cosmetics were poorly affected in particular by the chosen adhesive in the lining— wax-resin. Ubiquitously used in paintings conservation at the time, wax-resin adhesive was likely chosen due to its sympathetic nature with the current presence of wax-resin adhesive that had been used to attach the previous strip lining. Wax-resin lined paintings consistently present issues with readability and discoloration. Reactions to changes in temperature and humidity can encourage the wax-resin adhesive to migrate up through the canvas and paint layer through any small window of opportunity. Paint losses exposing canvas, existing issues with paint layer adhesion to the primary support, and wide-aperture cracks are just a few of the ways this adhesive has an opportunity to create a disfiguring film of hazy wax and yellowed resin over the painting. In the case of Magdalena Helena Veeder, the 1975 Smithsonian report described it as “unprimed” [3], meaning the canvas lacked a traditional ground layer between the fabric support and oil paint: the artist applied the paint directly to the canvas. The lack of priming provided an easier path for the wax-resin adhesive to migrate up to the surface after fully saturating the fabric support through the use of heat and pressure during the lining process.
An extensive lining reversal process to remove all components of past linings was done by hand in the painting’s studio with the aid of our hot table and subsequent, repetitive wicking-up of wax-resin adhesive residues with tailored organic solvent solutions. Unfortunately, it is impossible to safely remove all residues of lining adhesive from a fully-infused canvas; however, the wax-resin is reduced as much as possible, lessening the visual weight imparted to the painting by adhesive-swollen fibers of canvas.
The revealed primary fabric support on the reverse of the painting corroborates and expands upon the information recorded in the 1975 reports [4]. The most distinct observation from the reverse of Magdalena Helena Veeder is the strong ghost impression of the sitter sinking through the fabric support (fig.6). This impression is directly related to the lack of complete preparatory layers on the canvas to prevent the oil paint layer from penetrating through and is estimated to have been exacerbated by the combined use of heat and pressure employed in wax-resin linings. Concerns over the embrittlement of the primary support were lessened with the reduction of wax-resin (more specifically the resin component) in the canvas, returning some flexibility to the fibers. Other remnants of previous treatments, such as the wet-strength tear-mend tissue, white fill material (chalk-gelatin), and canvas inserts, were kept intact due to their continued ability to bolster the damages to the primary support.
FIGURE 6. The reverse of Magdalena Helena Veeder, during treatment.
Magdalena Helena Veeder was re-lined in our studio to more appropriate materials for this stage in the painting’s life. A fine-weight linen (sized with an acrylic emulsion adhesive) now acts as the overall lining fabric, with a fine mesh interleaf between the two canvases. Great care was taken to avoid bulking and discoloration issues from the excessive adhesive; therefore, the original support was not fully infused with a new lining adhesive. Instead, BEVA® film, a dried film version of the BEVA® 371 solution adhesive, was employed to create a contact bond between the primary and secondary fabric supports. While the hot table and low vacuum pressure were used to activate the thermoplastic adhesive and line the painting, a subsequent surface cleaning was undertaken after lining to assure any further wax-resin migration to the paint layer was removed. The progression of treatment photography may highlight the satisfying evolution of cosmetic success in our treatments (figs.7-9); however, the unseen transformation to the structure of this painting is the true foundation to aesthetic harmony. Whereas before treatment photography revealed the reductive nature of “too much”, the after treatment image reveals that the portrait of Magdalena Helena Veeder was carefully constructed by Pieter Vanderyln beyond simple decorative patterns. Vanderlyn clearly composed the painting to situate the sitter in a three-dimensional world, sensitive to how the image is received by the viewer. In a true painterly tradition, Vanderlyn surrounded the pictorial space with a painted frame in the foreground, complete with oval sight opening and spandrels. In the middle ground, Magdalena shines through the dark frame in her bright and bold dress, trappings of symbolism held in her positioning and small table of items beside her. The raw umber-toned setting behind the sitter creates a subtle fading to backspace, an unobtrusive and neutral setting to allow Magdalena to shine through-- without being bogged down by four pints of wax-resin adhesive.
FIGURE 7. Magdalena Helena Veeder, before treatment
FIGURE 8. A during treatment image of Magdalena Helena Veeder,; after delining, before relining
FIGURE 9. Magdalena Helena Veeder, after treatment
The portrait of Edward Collins as a Youth, painted by the enigmatic “Pierpont Limner”, shares a similar situating of space within the picture as the Vanderlyn portrait; the artist framed the space with a painted frame, oval sight opening, and neutral backdrop to the sitter’s likeness (figs.10-11). However, the hand of the Pierpont Limner is clearly more accomplished in a studied, painterly manner overall in technique and handling of the oil paint. In a slightly Rembrandt-esque style, the sitter is rendered in a moody tone with a dark backdrop, bohemian costuming and turned-head profile. The incorporation of an inscribed sill painted central to the image rather than inscribing in the spandrels is a more sensitive, additional detail referencing a long history of portraiture and integrated framing. Similar paintings of male sitters in the same dress found in other museum collections, also attributed to the Pierpont Limner, suggest costumes and props were regularly used by the artist [5].
FIGURE 10. Edward Collins as a Youth, before treatment
FIGURE 11. The reverse of Edward Collins as a Youth, before treatment.
FIGURE 12. Detail of cupped and raised paint with associated loss in Edward Collins as a Youth, before treatment.
The failing animal glue lining of this painting was negatively affecting both stability and aesthetics in a completely different manner than the wax-resin lining of the Vanderlyn portrait. Instead of a “disturbingly flat” surface, the paint layer of Edward Collins as a Youth exhibited vulnerabilities in attachment to the primary support. A complex pattern of craquelure was cupping throughout the film, with raised, sharp-edged cracks displaying new losses at the interstices. The surface of the painting was riddled with pockets of unfilled paint losses, some quite craterous, and mismatched textures bogged down and obscured by thick overpaint and discolored varnish (fig. 12). While the conservation records associated with the Pierpont Limner portrait are cursory and incomplete, the glue-lining was certainly carried out before a 1958 stabilization treatment and is estimated to have been done sometime in the 19th century.
It is assumed that the primary reason for this lining is the presence of multiple complex tears and punctures through the primary canvas support. However, there were likely issues within the structure of the paint layer as well due to the complex nature of the painting’s condition. In addition to repairing structural issues in the primary support, lining a painting may also address insecurities in the structure of the ground and paint layers. If detachment issues are extreme enough that localized consolidation is not sufficient, a full impregnation and consolidation of the painting with an appropriate adhesive during the lining process can reattach the entirety of ground and paint layers to the primary support while also bonding the original support to a secondary canvas and providing a stronger support to the structure overall. As mentioned in the case of Magdalena Helena Veeder, wax-resin adhesive easily penetrates the fabric fibers and migrates through the paint layers with the application of heat and pressure during lining. However, the animal glue adhesive used in the lining of Edward Collins as a Youth did not impregnate the canvas as thoroughly and did not have the bond strength necessary by the arrival of the 20th century to hold the paint layer in place. The 1958 stabilization treatment carried out by S. J. Fishburne was primarily a localized attempt to consolidate the area of inscription. Fishburne applied a wax-resin adhesive on the reverse of the lined painting, lower third, and attempted to set down cleaving paint on the surface using a heated spatula (darkened area along the lower edge of figure 11). An overall surface coating was also applied, methacrylate resin, as a saturating varnish and additional surface consolidant.
The reversal of the glue lining on Edward Collins as a Youth was also a different process entirely to that of Vanderlyn’s portrait, involving far more mechanical action in scraping away glue residues. After removing the secondary canvas in strips from the reverse, it was discovered that the lining adhesive remained as a very hardened shell on the canvas verso. The strength of the glue film was far stronger than the dry and fraying canvas fibers; therefore an aqueous gel syste̴m was used to slowly swell the animal glue in order to remove the residues carefully off the original support using a scalpel (fig. 13). The aqueous gel was able to weaken the adhesive bond and strengthen the natural fabric fibers, facilitating a thorough removal of glue-lining materials from the portrait of Edward Collins as a Youth.
Observations on the uncovered reverse of the original canvas communicate lost histories of past structures (fig.14). Scalloping patterns in the canvas and looming holes in the margins speak to the artist’s careful preparation of the canvas before executing his painting (fig.15). The outline of its original, discarded four-member strainer is visible framing the edges of the composition, complete with corrosion marks in the fabric from nails used in the butt-ended corner construction of the strainer. The lightened color of the canvas that extends from the strainer impression to the partially-intact margins additionally indicates a previous strip lining using another adhesive; the smell and visual characteristics of this residue indicated a possible combination of both animal glue and resin.
FIGURE 13. Detail of the process used for reducing the glue-paste lining residues.
Dark rectangles staining the fabric indicate former patch repairs of damage prior to the overall glue lining. The photographic documentation of the reverse of Edward Collins as a Youth during treatment at the WACC is crucial in retaining clues to these past iterations, particularly due to the lack of conservation records retained for this painting .
FIGURE 14. The reverse of Edward Collins as a Youth, after reduction of lining residues.
FIGURE 15. Detail of a loom holes in the tacking margins
The re-lining of Edward Collins as a Youth was primarily focused on consolidating the paint layer overall and supporting the friable canvas fabric. As with Magdalena Helena Veeder, the painting was similarly lined to a fine-weight linen overall with a fine mesh interleaf between the two canvases. Since a dilute application of BEVA 371 solution was used in the facing tissue prior to lining reversal, thinned residues of this adhesive after removing the tissue were utilized as an overall consolidation adhesive during lining. BEVA film was used on the lining canvas to create a contact bond rather than bulk up the canvas with more BEVA 371 solution. While the distinct craquelure patterns remain visible, their prominence was greatly reduced during lining and the paint layer was successfully stabilized overall. The removal of disfiguring varnish and overpaint during the cleaning process created a clean slate for cosmetics to be fully reintegrated. Craterous losses were filled to match the texture of the intact original paint layer and the abraded inscription was dotted back in to complete treatment on the portrait, presenting Edward Collins as a Youth in a more accomplished manner as intended by the Pierpont Limner (figs. 16-17).
FIGURE 16. The Pierpont Limner, Edward Collins as a Youth, oil on canvas, Albany Institute of History and Art, before treatment
FIGURE 17. The Pierpont Limner, Edward Collins as a Youth, oil on canvas, Albany Institute of History and Art, after treatment
We would like to express thanks to the Stockman Family Foundation for their generous support in funding the conservation of the wonderful collection of Dutch Patroon paintings belonging to our consortium member, the Albany Institute of History and Art (AIHA). We'd also like to thank AIHA for their enthusiasm and support during this project.
Photography Credit | Matt Hamilton and Mary Holland
In March of this year, both Monsterrat Le Mense and Mary Holland lectured on the supports and the nature of their conservation treatment for the Albany Institute of History and Art. See their talk below:
[2] Konrad, A.J. and Organ, R.M., “CAL 2182: Report of Examination and Treatment”, p. 1. Albany Institute of History and Art, Curatorial archives.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Holland references Elisha Lord, by the Pierpont Limner in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society and Portrait of a Boy, by the Pierpont Limner in the collection of the MFA, Houston