Our client was a child when his parents brought home a 19th century portrait of a gentleman, a handsome young man with dark hair, rosy cheeks and lips, and eyes that seemed bright and alert. While the portrait was old, it was not an important work of art by a famous artist. Nor was it worth a lot of money. But, like many of the paintings that grace the walls of private homes, it had become invaluable because it was loved. The young gentleman in the painting was a silent witness to decades of family life — the daily routines, the celebrations, the highpoints and lowpoints – which made it all the more poignant when the beloved work was the victim of a terrible accident.
The portrait – an old friend of the family at this point — became a fixture in the client’s home. When work required him to move out of town temporarily, he sealed his apartment and left the portrait and other valuables behind, assuming he would come home to find everything exactly the way he left it. While he was away, a pipe broke and spewed hot steam into the closed space, turning it into a dripping sauna.
It was two weeks before the damage was discovered. Our client rushed home to find his apartment filled with sodden refuse. He threw away everything…until he came across the portrait. The poor gentleman was a ghost of his former self, stripped of all color and definition. But when the owner held it in his hands, and thought about how it had become a family heirloom, he decided to put it in storage, hoping to find a way to bring it back to life.
Eventually, he brought the painting to Lowy.
Senior Paintings Conservator Lauren Rich recalls her first viewing of the damaged portrait. “It looked like it should hang in the Haunted House at Disneyworld,” she says. “There was serious blanching because the steam had been trapped under the oil paint. We knew it would be a difficult job, but there’s nothing better than being presented with a major challenge, especially by someone who cares so much and is hoping for a happy ending. You feel as if you’re the neurosurgeon who can save the life of the object.”
Fortunately, Lowy saves the lives of paintings every day, so the mission to restore the image of the 19th century gentleman began without delay. The portrait’s midtones were gone and not much definition was left. Destruction caused by water is not that different from being in a fire, Lauren points out. The cleaning process took what she calls “an insanely long” time. Using q-tips the size of a ballpoint pen and a strong solvent, Lauren had to go over the portrait repeatedly. “It was very frustrating. I’d get rid of 70% of the blanching and it would come right back,” she says. “That’s how much moisture there was.” It was actually a blessing that the portrait had never been restored previously, because it was protected somewhat by an original layer of linseed oil.
Once the blanching was resolved, the gentleman’s face was more distinct and there was even a little color in his cheeks. The painting had been through so much that the decision was made to fortify it with a liner. The young gentleman was in better shape physically than he’d been in decades, but he looked terrible. Now, it was time to address the painting’s extensive “cosmetic” problems.
Lowy’s Chief Conservator, Bill Santel, trained his expert eye on the newly-cleaned work and determined how to proceed with the next step: in painting. Bill has restored so many 19th century portraits that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of what would have been done at the time. He was able to fill in what was missing by playing off what came back and by making an informed prediction on the basis of how other artists of the period painted eyes and other features. Gradually, he rebuilt the face. Bill also had to revivify the portrait’s background, which seemed to depict some kind of natural scenery. It was very dark and mottled, making it difficult to determine what the artist had painted in the original. Again, Bill reconstructed the images of foliage, sky, sea, and mountains by drawing on his extensive experience.
Lowy’s careful ministrations have brought this portrait back to vivid life. “It was one of our most rewarding jobs,” says Lauren. The portrait’s miraculous resurrection reminds us that our most valuable works are our sentimental treasures — the ones we love, and live with, every day. They must be protected, preserved, and restored at all costs. The ghostly figure, ravaged by disaster, is gone, and the 19th century gentleman with the piercing gaze is back. Yes, he shows a little wear. Who doesn’t at his age? But thanks to Lauren and Bill, he is fit, flushed, and neatly groomed, with every hair in place. Most importantly, he is ready to assume his place of honor on the wall.