A New Life for an Old Painting

On January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman filed the one of the first claims under the Homestead Act of 1862 in what is now Beatrice, Nebraska.  When the Freemans built a cabin there, they became known as “America’s First Homestead Family”.  The site of Freeman’s claim is now Homestead National Monument of America, a unit of the National Park Service.  

painting of man in front of log cabin, fencing and trees in the left background, woman and child stand at center background

The Homestead painting before treatment.  Years of dirt and dust have dulled and muddied the color of the sky.

Twenty-five years later, in 1888, Gusta R. Strohm, a resident of Beatrice, painted Freeman and his family in front of the cabin.  The large painting (48″ x 80″), “The First Homestead”, had a nomadic life.  It was displayed in multiple venues before it ended up in the U.S. Capitol building.  It hung there before being placed in storage and forgotten.  It was eventually discovered by a a Nebraska state representative who shipped it to the Nebraska State Historical Society (now History Nebraska) who eventually turned it over to Homestead National Monument of America.  Using a grant from the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Friends of Homestead National Monument of America brought the painting to the Ford Center for treatment.  

photograph of the painting in raking light from the right showing surface distortions     painting photographed in raking light from the right, showing surface distortions corrected

Before (left) and after (right) treatment, the painting was photographed in raking light (light shining parallel to the surface).  Raking light shows the surface details of the painting, including holes, tears and planar distortions.

The 131-year-old painting was showing its age.  The linen canvas was brittle and torn in a number of places.  It was slack on its stretcher and was buckled.  The oil paint had not been varnished and had darkened overtime from accumulated dirt and grime.  The goal for treatment was to make the painting more structurally sound and clean it to restore the brighter colors of the artist’s intent.

during treatment photo, showing the painting lined on new canvas and partially cleaned. The left side of the painting has been cleaned and the right side has not.

The painting partially cleaned during treatment.  You can see the darker area on the right side of the painting that has yet to be cleaned.  The painting has been lined onto its new canvas.

As with all objects and artifacts that come in to the Ford Center, the painting was photographed to document the condition of the painting before treatment.  Next, loose and flaking paint was consolidated with a specialized adhesive.  Once the paint was secure, the canvas was removed from the stretcher and flattened to reduce distortions around the tears.  The tears were mended from behind and the canvas was lined onto a new backing canvas using a heat set adhesive and the heated suction table.  After the painting was safely lined, the painted surface was cleaned revealing the original colors beneath the grime.  It was then attached to a new stretcher and a varnish layer was applied.  The varnish layer not only brings out the original colors, but acts as a barrier layer for the fills in the loss areas.  The losses were filled and toned to match the surrounding paint layer.  The painting was reframed and after treatment photographs were taken.  

painting of man in front of log cabin, fencing and trees in the left background, woman and child stand at center background. The painting is cleaned with brighter colors

After treatment, the colors of the painting appear brighter and the image is clearer.

During treatment, Nebraska Public Television came in on a regular basis to record painting conservator Kenneth Be’s progress.  You can watch their story “A New Life for Old Paintings” and see additional photographs here: https://nebraskastories.org/videos/a-new-life-for-old-paintings/


Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

It’s Too Hot to Sleep Inside!

It’s Too Hot to Sleep Inside!

Cleaning Amelia Earhart’s Sporting License

Cleaning Amelia Earhart’s Sporting License

Marker Monday: Nebraska’s Big Rodeo

Marker Monday: Nebraska’s Big Rodeo

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

Education Digital Learning Resources

Find games, lists, and more to enhance your history education curriculum.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

History Nebraska Services

Digital Resources

Find all of our digital resources, files, videos, and more, all in one easy-to-search page!

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.