Friday, August 1, 2014

Get a Sneak Peek of Washington Resigning!

At this point in the Old Senate Chamber restoration project, many of the state’s paintings that will be on display as part of the Old Senate Chamber exhibit are now in the midst of conservation. Recently, MSA staff were able to visit conservators working on the canvas of Edwin White’s Washington Resigning His Commission, which was removed last November from the grand staircase of the State House to undergo its first major conservation since 1981. During the visit, we were able to capture some of the cleaning on camera to give blog readers a special look at what it takes to clean a masterpiece.

Washington Resigning's canvas is currently under conservation at Artex Fine Art Services. To understand the scope of the surface cleaning process, take note that the videos included for this week's blog post all focus on a small part of the table cloth near the attendees. Maryland State Archives, 24 July 2014.

Currently, conservators are finishing the process of cleaning the surface of the painting. Their work entails removing the old varnish, dirt, and layers of retouching from the painting to reveal most of the original 1859 layer. Artex Fine Art Services conservator, Christy St. Germain, explained the technique: “The discolored and dull varnish layers along with the old, matched, or discolored retouching were removed using a three step process.” First, “The surface was rolled over with solvent on cotton swabs to remove/reduce the more recent synthetic varnish layers and most recent retouching.”

“A custom solvent gel (working like a poultice) was then applied to the surface with a brush to slowly remove aged, hardened, natural resin-based varnish residues and older retouching.”

A small square of mylar was then placed on the area and held briefly in place. The mylar was meant to trap the gel in the desired area of the painting and more effectively pick up the excess grime.

At last, the mylar was removed and “[the solvent gel] was cleared from the painted surface using solvent on cotton swabs.” If you look closely at the video, you can see the difference the surface cleaning made. Colors become almost immediately more vibrant, transforming the entire painting. It is interesting to observe the dirt accumulate on the cotton swab, which is indicative of the amount of dirt that has accumulated on the surface.

After the surface cleaning is complete, the conservators will begin filling and inpainting areas of loss. The finished product will be much closer to its original appearance than has been visible in more than a half century!

Edwin White’s Washington Resigning His Commission will return to the Maryland State House, looking better than ever, in December of this year as part of the opening of the Old Senate Chamber. Stay tuned for more updates!

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