The restoration journey of two floral still lifes by the American painter Martin Johnson Heade (1819- 1904) began when James Maroney, a Vermont-based dealer in American art, received a phone call from a library in the Midwest. “They had just discovered the paintings in their basement and thought they were junk,” says Maroney. “Nevertheless, they called for my opinion. I told them that they were definitely not junk!” The paintings were, in fact, among eight different variations of vases of white and red roses that Heade painted from the 1860s onward. Noted for his luminous still lifes, salt marsh landscapes, seascapes and portraits of tropical birds, Heade is considered one of the most important artists of his generation. Maroney believes that the two still lifes, although not a pair because they vary in format, could be companion paintings that were meant to be hung together. But before they could be viewed in their full glory, they needed a skilled restoration.
“The paintings had never before been conserved and had accumulated more than a century of serious grime, and some of it was very stubborn,” Maroney says. “There were also a few small punctures in the canvases and minor losses to the paint surface. I always get excellent advice in both conservation and framing from Lowy, so I knew exactly where to go. I met with Lowy’s conservators, and together we determined what needed to be done.” The heavy surface dirt and soot combined with a layer of yellowed natural resin varnish obscured the paintings’ images and colors, as revealed under ultraviolet light. Lowy’s conservation team, headed by Bill Santel, first cleaned the paintings using the appropriate detergents and solvents. They were careful not to disturb the canvas supports, which had weakened and oxidized with age, exhibiting scattered bulges, corner draws, cupping and stretcher bar creases. After a thorough cleaning, the paintings were removed from their stretchers and treated with heat and humidity on a vacuum table to eliminate planar distortions. The paintings were then ready to be lined, a process that can involve reinforcing the original canvas support with a layer of mylar, Tetex (a synthetic textile) and a linen backing using the thermoplastic adhesive BEVA 371.
“But for these linings, we chose a less invasive approach,” says Bill. “We used a BEVA infusion to mount only the Tetex, which is a thin, strong, virtually transparent material that looks like a nylon stocking. It not only allows you to see the back of the original canvas, but because it is so lightweight it does not distort the character and surface of the painting. Heavier linings can sometimes cause weave interference with the original canvas or put pressure on the paint layer. It was my hunch that the Heades would respond to a less is more approach, even though paintings in this condition would usually require more aggressive treatment. Lowy always strives to keep interventions as minimal as possible, in accordance with current conservation standards.”
After being lined, the paintings were re-stretched onto their original stretchers and given a protective coating of synthetic resin varnish. Losses, selective craquelure and scratches were filled with a reversible vinyl gesso and inpainted using pigments mulled in acrylic resin. A final
coat of synthetic resin varnish was applied to protect against environmental pollutants and provide an aesthetically pleasing surface. By the end of the process, Bill was satisfied that the cleaning, structural work and inpainting were in top order. And Maroney could not have been more pleased with the result. “The paintings were extremely vibrant, revealing once again the details and highlights that had been obscured by layers of surface debris,” Maroney says. “I’m thrilled with Lowy’s work. The Heades now look magnificent. Good conservation means doing as little as possible for maximum effect, and I depend on Lowy to make that judgment.”