A grand scale project taken on by Lowy conservators was the restoration of an historic mural by Oscar E. Berninghaus. The 8 x 12′ oil on canvas, “Commerce on the Levee in the early 80s” was originally commissioned for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St.Louis, Missouri where it remained until it was removed from its wall in 1987. Berninghaus, born in 1874 in St. Louis, was a noted muralist and avid painter of southwestern landscapes who depicted realistic day-to- day American rural life in his paintings until his death in 1952.
Berninghaus divided his time between Missouri and Taos, New Mexico where he helped form the Taos society of artists in 1912. The large scale of the painting complicated the evaluation, testing and treatment of the mural which was done at an off-site warehouse space. Adding to the difficulties presented by the scale were the auxiliary supports that had been added. The lining support consisted of three sections of upson board panels mounted with hard white gesso that left visible vertical divisions from the seams of the panels across the face of the painting. Further distortions were caused by the uneven application of the gesso and the attachment of these panels to a wooden framework that was weak and unstable.
The painting was initially faced with a Japanese tissue and natural aqueous adhesive to provide protection to the paint layer. Fred Schmidt proposed that the canvas be rolled away from the upson board taking a thin layer of the board with it. This enabled conservators to remove the canvas from the bulk of it auxiliary supports before the artwork was transported to the Lowy conservation studio where the vacuum hot table had been enlarged to fit the canvas. Remnants of the board and gesso were then mechanically removed layer by layer until arriving at a workable surface level to bond existing tears with epoxy resin and mulberry tissue. At this point, the canvas verso was further leveled off with an application of reversible BEVA gesso in order to attain a smooth and even surface and eliminating potential surface distortions during the lining process while at the same time providing additional support in holding down the bonded tears. The painting was prepared for lining. Finding auxiliary supports large enough to accommodate the original canvas required investigation into materials and suppliers.
David Yanez determined that the artwork would have two interlayers of Pecap-7-60 (a polyester fabric) which would be carefully seamed together to avoid a seam being detected on the face of the painting. It was essential the lining material be inert and strong enough to stabilize the bonded tears from any movement. The lining would be completed in two stages using Beva 371( a synthetic thermoplastic adhesive) on the vacuum table. Subsequent restoration was complicated by the poorly matched prior replacement of a 22 x64″ section of canvas in the upper right corner. Tears and other paint losses had been overpainted to obscure damages. This overpaint as well as the canvas addition had been executed in oil paints which had begun to crosslink with the original paint layer. The cleaning process consisted of removing the dirt, grime, overpaint, and extremely discolored natural varnish layers;
“We were all surprised by how vivid the colors really were,” remarked Fred Schmidt, “the painting was actually painted as a vibrant river front scene”. Overpaint had covered a large part of the sky area and was painted to look like grey smoke emanating from the original smokestacks. The artist’s quite luminous pastel colored sky was revealed when this was removed. Previous fillings in and around canvas losses were also removed and/or reduced as part of the process to ensure a clean and even surface before the subsequent lining. The final stage of the lining process began with the addition of a second layer of Pecap followed by the adhesion of a new linen canvas. The painting was then stretched and inpainted. The replaced section of canvas in the upper right was retextured with gesso and gel to match the original canvas and repainted. The painting was finally framed and shipped to its new New Mexico home.