Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Metropolitan Museum, Private Tour of the New American Wing

I have spent the year working for the conservator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Museum. Spending so much time around masterpieces of American art made me appreciate the incredible art movement that preceded us in America, shifting my interests from an almost exclusively European standpoint.

I attended the College Art Association annual conference in New York this past week, and was lucky enough to sign up for a private workshop by the American Institute for Conservation. Learning to Look: Nineteenth Century American Paintings took 12 historians, conservators and myself to the new American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a look at the makings and secrets of the paintings housed there.

Led by independent conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, and Dorothy Mahon, Elizabeth Kornhauser, and Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the workshop discussed the material aspects of nineteenth-century American paintings and gave us an inside look at the close-knit relationship between the conservators and curators working at one of the most renowned museums in the United States.

German-American artist Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze painted Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1851. The massive oil on canvas painting commemorates George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776 en route to an attack against the Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey.

This huge river piece boasts a long history that made it the highlight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new American Wing. The painting housed at the Metropolitan is, in fact, the second reincarnation of Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. The original painting, created in 1850 was damaged in a fire in his studio; Leutze immediately began a replacement and later repaired the original which was acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen.

The second, and some say more distinguished, version made its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 19th century. Sometime before its arrival at the Met, the huge canvas lost its distinctive frame. Photographs were found of the piece, and master craftsmen painstakingly reproduced the original frame for the museum to prepare it for the way it is seen today.

Treating the painting between 2008 and 2009, conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers were relieved to find the painting itself in fairly good condition. The surfaces felt very dark and hazy, it had not been treated since 1947, but besides some discoloration in the pigments, all of the grime and damage was in the varnish layer that could be removed.

Looking at the painting untreated, the conservators found the entire surface to be patchy, almost as if it was treated in square sections, and the overlap were over cleaned. Some sections were too clean from close up work and others darkened due to grime being mixed in with the varnish.

The likely cause was the setup for the conservation of this huge painting in 1947: The painting was placed on the ground and a scaffolding was built around it. The conservator would lean over the scaffolding, mere inches above the canvas. The conservator did not have the opportunity to step back and see the painting as a whole, the result produced a patchy sky and a complete obliteration of the morning star, which was too subtle to notice amongst a sea of blotchy clouds.

Another challenge was the thick wax coating used as varnish by the 1947 conservator. The 1920s-40s boasted a fad for the use of wax coatings on paintings and murals. The matte finish decreased glare and allowed a large piece to be viewed easily without distraction. A series of notes of worry about lighting such a large image were documented; the waxy coating would avoid glare and make lighting easier. Lance Mayer and Gay Myers had to selectively clean to remove wax but be careful about removing on areas that had been too cleaned. Synthetic resin varnish that mimics the varnish that would have been used by Leutze replaced the earlier varnish.

Another fun element is the discovery of two series of numbers, still unexplained, hidden among the icebergs. The numbers likely represent dates, but have value of these dates have not yet been discovered.

Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware is a distinguished piece and a fitting centerpiece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Art Wing, and seeing it upon entering the galleries gives reference to all of the pieces surrounding it. Symbolic messages through the lighting and the sky are paramount; manifest destiny represented in the light guiding Washington to newfound land. The newly cleaned star beams in the top right, guiding Washington and the billowing American flag behind him to his new spoils. America...

A big thank you to both Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, as well as Dorothy Mahon, Elizabeth Kornhauser, and Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a private look at the secrets of the New American Wing.

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