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John Leslie Breck – A Dangerous Curve

January 27, 2005

3 minute read

John Leslie Breck - A Dangerous Curve

A panel painting was brought to Lowy for conservation. The panel, entitled Venezia, was by John Leslie Breck, who was born in New York in 1860. While still in his twenties, Breck had worked alongside Claude Monet in Giverny, France, and was one of the original founders of the expatriate American Impressionist art colony there. Breck likely executed the panel in 1896-97, at the same time he painted a series of moonlight themes depicting the Santa Maria della Salute, a church in Venice. Venezia bears an inscription at the bottom of the panel that reads: “DHT Jr., from J. Leslie Breck, Venezia,” which suggests it had been a gift. The panel measures 91/2 x 7 1/2 x 1/4 inches. It was so warped when it arrived at Lowy, that it formed an arch. This extreme distortion made it impossible for it to fit into a frame or hang properly for viewing. Given the panel’s fragile state, the owner feared treatment would be impossible, but members of our conservation department determined that conservation could be successfully carried out.

Treatment of the panel began with cleaning: removing embedded dirt, insect accretions, and a discolored natural resin varnish. Next, its painted surface was faced with two layers of Japanese mulberry tissue and an adhesive to protect the artwork during the subsequent structural treatment. The process of relaxing the panel was begun by gradually administering humidity and light pressure, but it soon became clear that the thickness of the wood would need to be reduced in order to flatten the panel. We then called in Lowy master carver Allan Webb, who constructed a wooden cradle designed in the reverse of the panel’s exact warped shape. Using calipers, he then made a series of chases, or trenches, in the wood across the back of the panel, while it rested in the cradle. The markings served as a guide during the wood-removal phase, enabling Allan to determine the wood’s thickness as he worked, gradually and confidently. Allan’s painstaking chiseling reduced the wood to a desirable thickness of an eighth of an inch. He evened out the chiseled back surface with a coarse file called a riffler and then sanded the wood.

Finally, the panel was treated with heat and humidity on a vacuum hot table, where it remained under pressure until all residual humidity had been extracted, and the panel became flat. It was then mounted onto a rag board and an aluminum honeycomb panel with veneered sides to stabilize the panel and provide an auxiliary support to the original painting. Minor inpainting and varnishing completed the restoration of the artwork. The successful treatment of this beautiful painting by Breck not only ensures its preservation for future generations, but also allows the image to be exhibited and enjoyed as the artist had originally intended.

Above: the warped John Leslie Breck panel before conservation.

Above: John Leslie Breck panel during conservation.

Below: same panel after conservation