Stabilizing a 19th Century Painting

I recently was presented with an opportunity to help stabilize an old painting for Schilb Antiquarian, a rare book/map/art seller here in Columbia, Missouri.

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The painting hanging inside the front hallway of my home.

The piece came to Schilb unstretched and rolled, showing a variety of problems including craquelure and some loss of paint adhesion. The provenance of the piece as described by Schilb is as follows:

Unknown artist. Estimated mid to late 19th century. This painting was located in Peru at Hacienda de San Isidro Chonta, a farm that was established in 1703. In the 1960’s, President Juan Velasco Alvarado seized farming properties from around the country and, subsequently, peasant farmers took what they could from the farm, including this work from the ‘paroquia’ or house of worship. The piece comes to Schilb via an estate sale.

Here’s my breakdown of the situation and my plan to stabilize the piece:

Project:

Crafting a stabilizing substrate and support for a mid to late 19th century South American painting of Christ with Crown of Thorns (Artist Unknown).

Overview:

Work is approximately 24 by 20 inches. Medium is oil on linen and an indirect glazing technique. The surface of the work presents with general craquelure. Some areas of paint film exhibit contact, rolling, and loss-of-adhesion damage, but these are limited. The work has obviously been rolled for a significant period of time. Verso state of linen appears to show standard degradation of fibers consistent with exposure to oil paint and solvents over time. The painting has been framed in the past, and the surface of the work – which is currently unframed – was once stretched over 20- by 16-inch bars. Nail holes are visible around the edge. No special marks appear to be visible on verso or recto; no maker’s marks or indicators of provenance are present. Since there are no important marks on the back of the painting, it seems reasonable to cover the back of the work for protection and longevity.

Project Outline:

My plan is to use a PH Neutral Polyvinyl Acetate adhesive to attach the painting to a quality linen substrate. Once joined and dry, the two components will be laid over a wooden panel (which will also be treated with PVA sizing to make it resistant to atmospheric conditions) and sealed down. In this process the painting will gain stability and presentation quality. The surface of the painting will no longer be moving, so the existing surface damage will be contained and slowed. The verso of the work, which currently presents raw linen to the air, will be sealed in a PH Neutral environment and this will serve to slow the oil-based damage to the linen fibers.

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In my workshop, after the piece was attached to the linen substrate and about to be stretched over the panel.

It was an interesting experience to work with this painting. I figure that no person other than the artist has touched the surface of this work more than I have. In photographing it, examining it, planning the stabilization, and then executing the process I found myself thinking about the history of the piece and where it’s been. A minor work, obviously vernacular, and without much to distinguish it other than its subject, the painting is still the work of a real artist who lived and worked and tried to be something. I’ve thought about that artist; what hopes motivated him or her? Perhaps they created dozens of these Christ paintings, maybe it was a single job to make ends meet. In 150 years will someone come upon one of my own works – a piece of little note or distinction – and find the time and desire to make sure it lasts a little longer? I hope so.

Here’s a high resolution shot of the piece in it’s state before the mounting. Click to see it large.

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Thanks to Scott Schilb for giving me the opportunity to meet this painting!

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