Lowy faced several unique challenges when it was called upon to restore a massive 14-foot by 17-foot oil painting of a battle scene from the American Revolution. The painting is a version of "Siege of Yorktown (1781)," a circa 1836 oil painting by the French Romantic painter Louis-Charles-Auguste Couder depicting George Washington and French commanders after the victory at Yorktown, which hangs in the Battles Gallery at Versailles chateau in France. Couder's painting was based on an eponymous 1784 gouache executed for King Louis XVI by Louis-Nicholas van Blarenberghe, a professional painter of battle and campaign scenes for the French army.
The version that came to Lowy, which is approximately the same size and composition as the Couder original, was likely created as a presentation piece and offered as a gift to either an individual or an institution. But it was hardly in presentable condition when it arrived folded, wrinkled and torn. Its huge scale was a significant hurdle to the three-month conservation process, which warranted inventive solutions to facilitate handling and treatment.
First, Lowy's conservation team built an extension to the already large vacuum-hot table used for other painting conservation jobs. The canvas was then laid out on the table for cleaning by Marlene Raedisch and Sebastian Deregibus, who walked across the surface of the painting on a thick foam mat, removing dirt layers and remnants of natural resin varnish with appropriate detergents and solvents. " Many areas were very brittle, rippled and had a lot of tears," says Marlene. "So the biggest challenge was not to damage the painting further by walking on it, which is not a typical concern. Also, the varnish remnants that showed up in some of the dark tones of the image had to be cleaned more delicately so as not to disturb the pigments beneath." Once the canvas was thoroughly cleaned, the wrinkles, folds, tears and other surface distortions were flattened with a local application of heat and pressure. Multiple tears were then bonded using epoxy resin. In some areas, canvas inserts were used to patch holes and bonded in the same manner as the tears. The entire painting was subsequently treated section by section with humidity, heat and pressure on the enlarged vacuum hot table to flatten any remaining surface distortions. It was then ready for lining with a thermoplastic adhesive. A synthetic Pe-cap interlayer was inserted between the original canvas and the lining canvas for extra strength and durability. The next big challenge was how to facilitate inpainting a canvas of this size, one of the largest Lowy has ever restored.
Lowy's team solved the problem by rolling the painting from either end onto two heavyduty, 10-inch-diameter reinforced cardboard tubes that were held in place by two specially constructed towering wooden supports. The painting could then be rolled down as conservation work progressed. Once the painting was hung vertically in this way, surface paint losses and tears were filled with gesso reinforced with PVA adhesive. The entire surface was then sealed with varnish and inpainted using pigments mulled in an acrylic resin. " Inpainting in this case was a standard procedure using standard materials. But because there was so much paint loss it took longer than usual," says Lowy conservator Bill Santel.
"Fortunately, most of the loss was in areas of the background and along the top edge of the sky, so we didn't have to reconstruct figural elements." After inpainting, a synthetic resin varnish was applied to protect against environmental pollutants and provide a smooth, aesthetically pleasing surface. But a final challenge remained. The monumental painting had to be wrapped and removed from Lowy's conservation studio. Such maneuvering required an imaginative solution. This expertly restored American beauty was eventually carefully transported on top of the freight elevator to the ground floor and returned to its proud owner.