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Willard Metcalf Conservation, Ingenuity

November 27, 2003

3 minute read

Willard Metcalf Conservation, Ingenuity


It didn’t take an expert to see that the beautiful Impressionist light of “October Morning”, by Willard Metcalf was completely obscured by a dark surface coating when the painting arrived at Lowy. It was obvious that this layer would have to be removed to reveal the true palette characteristic of the artist. Unfortunately, the owner informed us that several attempts had already been unsuccessful in removing this thick, discolored, glossy film. Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) was one of a group of painters known as “The Ten” who gathered in the summers around the home of Florence Griswold in Old Lyme, Connecticut to paint the landscapes of New England.

This group of ten American artists that included William Merrit Chase, Thomas Dewing, Childe Hassam and John Twachtman, created the art movement that was to become known as American Impressionism. Born in Lowell Massachusetts, Metcalf began his professional art training as a wood engraver before studying landscape painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the 1880s, when French Impressionism dominated artistic styles, Metcalf traveled to Paris to further his artistic studies. The influences upon his work would be seen years later, in the quiet natural settings of New England that he made the subjects of his paintings.

Lowy conservators had previously treated numerous works by various American Impressionist artists, but “October Morning” presented an unprecedented situation. Following careful examination, the severely discolored surface coating was identified as a polyurethane varnish that had darkened and obscured both the image and the vibrant tonality of the painting. This hard surface coating, normally used commercially in the automotive industries and other such arenas where paint surfaces require a more solid, durable and less solvent resistant coating, proved impenetrable with conventional cleaning methods, including the strongest solvents used in the safe removal of aged resin coatings. “October Morning” is one of four canvases known as “The Deerfield Paintings” which were produced for a benefit auction to raise funds for the American Red Cross in France in 1917. Now, almost a century later, this painting was to be included in an upcoming retrospective exhibition entitled “Yankee Impressionism” scheduled at Spanierman Gallery in NYC, but only if it could be successfully restored to its original luminosity.

Research into alternative treatment options continued and included a consultation with another prominent conservator using laser cleaning to remove unwanted additions to artworks. Testing proved unsuccessful due to the inability of the laser to break down the polyurethane without damaging the original oil paint layer. The polyurethane varnish was harder than the original paint and neither conventional solvent removal nor new technological interventions could safely remove it. Fred Schmidt, a Lowy conservator, determined that there was a way. Through several tests he discovered that the use of a hot air device initiated the release of the polyurethane from the paint. He was then able to complete its removal using adhesive strips applied over the loosened coating that he could safely pull away without disturbing the original paint layer. A solution had been found! Minor scattered remnants of the polyurethane were removed mechanically with a scalpel. Structurally, the artwork was in excellent condition and needed minimal additional treatment. The slackened canvas was keyed out in order to improve surface tension and a mineral spirit based synthetic resin varnish was applied as a

Above and below: “October Morning” during and after cleaning.

protective but easily reversible coating. It was as if a dark cloud had been lifted one “October Morning”. Metcalf’s wispy impasto brushstrokes danced across the surface of this light infused landscape painting once again.