Curiously George

 

“Along with the iconic style and subject matter, there were other clues — the age of the canvas, the transparency of the pigment and the colors of the palette — that pointed to the conclusion that Gilbert Stuart painted this portrait of George Washington,” recalls Larry Shar. “Even the frame, which was clearly original and from the correct era, added evidence to the case.” The painting in question, a 30″ x 25″ oil, was put up for sale at Sotheby’s in spring, 2001. During the preview period, Shar and art dealer/historian Marvin Sadik were asked to give their opinion on the work itself and on the possibilities for cleaning and restoration. Both men felt the painting probably was by Stuart but were troubled by the mouth area, which was visibly — and poorly — overpainted. Stuart’s characteristic way of depicting the expression of Washington’s mouth was missing in this work,” said Sadik. “The problem was that we weren’t sure we would find it under the overpainting.” But find it they did.

 

As an “un-attributed” work, Sotheby’s estimate was $10,000 – $20,000, but since several bidders clearly thought the painting was a Stuart, the gavel fell at more than 10 times its estimate. Jane Studabaker of the Guarisco Gallery in Washington DC, bidding on behalf of Mrs. Eugene Casey, paid $247,750 for the painting, then quickly brought it to Lowy so that Bill Santel and his colleagues in the conservation lab could evaluate its existing condition and determine the proper conservation treatment. “An unstable lining added during a previous restoration was removed, as was its glue adhesive. The next step was to perform a humidity treatment, where heated pressure is used to calm surface distortions. The work was then re-lined using BEVA, a fully reversible thermoplastic adhesive,” Santel explains. Old restorations, the severely discolored varnish and surface dirt were removed using the appropriate detergents and solvents.

 

“We were relieved when we found the original mouth virtually untouched under the overpainting,” said Sadik. Small losses and abrasions were filled with vinyl gesso and inpainted, and the entire work was varnished with a reversible synthetic resin to provide protection as well as an appropriate aesthetic surface. The antique frame was also restored by Lowy. “We replaced or repaired any damaged or missing composition elements, and restored the gilt finish where necessary,” recalls Shar. What next for this magnificent work of art?

 

According to Jane Studabaker, “Mrs. Casey is one of the driving forces behind the movement to create a permanent home for the Mayor of the District — a sort of ‘Gracie Mansion’ for DC. She bought the land on Foxhole Road and donated it to the city, and has begun assembling an art collection, which she will also donate, for the new site.” Studabaker explained that Casey thought it was “essential to have a portrait of the first president by the quintessential Washington portraitist” and plans to hang it prominently in the new mayoral home. Shar concludes, “It’s always exciting to have your artistic instincts confirmed, but to know that Lowy’s conservators helped bring this part of our nation’s heritage to the fore is doubly gratifying.

Detail of portrait showing cleaning process, and  full
portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart after conservation.

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