The Saint Louis Art Museum Reveals the Work Behind Preserving the Past

    By: Kerry Marks

    The Saint Louis Art Museum has turned the laborious task of restoring the very large “Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley” into an exhibition all its own.  In Sculpture Hall, conservators will be working through the end of July to finish the project, which began in 2011.

    The moving panorama served as an early form of cinema during the 19th century where it would be taken from town to town and played before a crowd, accompanied by lectures, storytelling, and music.

    Montroville W. Dickeson made his profession in archeology and commissioned the 348 foot long piece as a way to commemorate what he saw traversing the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. It is the only known example of a Mississippi River panorama to survive to present day, though the constant travel wore away at the composition, leaving large cracks through the flaking paint.

    Conservators began by mounting the canvas on an aluminum, motorized version of the original structure, designed by the Laciny Bros., Inc. in St. Louis.  On each of the 25 scenes, they use a gelatin solution to relax creases and reattach loose paint, then they use watercolor crayons and other materials to fill in where paint has fallen off.

    To properly clean, repair, and preserve art, one needs a graduate education and many years of practical experience.  Professionals start by first carefully examining a painting to understand its current condition. They use imaging techniques such as UVA lamps and infrared to see what kind of coatings are on the painting, the materials originally used, and even under drawings, though even such techniques have their limits.

    In the recently restored “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” by Mattia Preti in an adjacent gallery, a change to the original composition surprised conservators when they stripped away a topcoat of paint.

    “If there are certain things that come in and out of fashion. Restorers previously might have had a little more artistic license than we might these days in terms of changing compositional elements of the paintings,” Claire Winfield explains.

    Winfield is the Associate Painting Conservator at SLAM who worked to revitalize Preti’s painting.  In this case, past restorers changed the composition from a woman with her hands bound by rope that’s held by soldiers into one where she wore shackles, changing the narrative of the piece.  They did so using a carbon-based paint, which infrared couldn’t see through. Carbon absorbs infrared light, so it appears darker than other materials. This normally allows conservators to see under drawings and compositional elements.

    “We can see where an artist might have changed his mind about the placement of a hand or how he plotted out or drew out or transferred parts of the composition,” she says.

    After a thorough investigation, conservators discuss options for restoring a piece with curators who approve and oversee any restorations.

    Then the work to clean the painting begins.  Restorers remove superficial dust and grime with water-based systems which can be tweaked with various soaps and solutions depending on the dirt.  Then they remove the varnish, which enhances contrast, intensifies colors, adds sheen, and acts as a protective coating over the original work. Removing a layer of varnish will remove everything on top of it.

    Conservators work on top of a protective varnish, sometimes selectively sandwiching layers between varnishes so that one level is removable without removing everything else.  In restoring a canvas, they’re careful to only use modern, synthetic, and reversible paints. “That way anything we add, we can remove over time if the color shifts or it needs to be cleaned again because we spend a lot of our time undoing what people have done in best faith before,” Winfield says.

    As part of the “Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley” restoration exhibit, a conservator, a curator, and docents will be giving presentations and answering questions in Sculpture Hall.  Preti’s “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery” now hangs in Gallery 236.

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