Lowy was faced with a challenging conservation project when asked to work on a large mural study painted by John LaFarge. Part of the collection of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, “The Angel of the Sun” was installed in the library rotunda of the College of Staten Island and was to be the center of an exhibit on LaFarge. The mural is the original study for one of two large tondos that were designed to face the altar in Manhattan’s St. Paul the Apostle church. The companion mural, called “The Angel of the Moon” was completed and installed as a part of a commission awarded to LaFarge in 1876; however contractual disagreements with the church caused LaFarge to cease work on “The Angel of the Sun” and prevented completion of the final mural.
The full scale, 112 inch square study was painted in tempera emulsion on paper and was later mounted to canvas. The study was sold to Augustus Healy in 1911. At this time the tears, losses, insert repairs and general poor condition of the work were documented. After later becoming part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, where it was in storage for years, the study was purchased privately, probably restored again, and then gifted to the Staten Island Institute in 1976. Not surprisingly, after so many years of obscurity, the artwork was in poor condition, so when the Institute decided to display it, they knew that it had to be conserved and contacted Lowy. “Examining the work was in itself a challenge,” explains Marie Bruno, the head conservator for the project. “It had been rolled on a large drum for so long that we were initially able to see only the three feet that were exposed without risking further damage.”
Examinations revealed an extremely fragile, unstable paint layer lifting from a weak, oxidized paper support. This support, which was comprised of six overlapping panels that were shaped to form a circle, was only semiattached to a very dessicated canvas. The four corners of the canvas were gilded. There were large areas of overpaint, extensive cupping, and flaking throughout. Solubility problems and a wax coating on the surface further complicated the treatment options.
Bruno and her co-conservators began by spraying a gelatin solution over the surface to stabilize and relax the fragile layers of the painting so it could be carefully unrolled. Finally, the study was viewed in its entirety for the first time in decades. Recounts Bruno, “The mural was so large and the condition so delicate, that the paint consolidation became the most essential as well as time consuming stage of the entire treatment.”
Conservation objectives were to consolidate and stabilize both the paint layer and the paper support, and to provide a suitable structural framework in which the mural could be safely exhibited. While doing all this, it was essential to also retain the work’s visual and historic changes. Structural treatments included facing the artwork, removing the deteriorated canvas and lining adhesive from the paper art, de-acidification, relaxing and flattening deformations of the paper support, and filling losses.
Following reconstruction of the verso, the study was treated with four separate linings on a vacuum table. “Because of its enormous size, we had to create a special vacuum table just for this painting,” says Bruno. The restored mural was then stretched on a new heavy weight stretcher and losses were inpainted to unify the image. Finally, the painting was put into its original frame, enabling “The Angel of the Sun” to be exhibited — safely and beautifully — once again.