History Nebraska Blog

Horses of a Different Color

Sometimes the conservation treatment of an artwork yields rewarding results showing off the impressive original appearance, often hidden below layers of discoloration and alteration.  Such was the case with the oil on canvas painting  Mounted Field Artillery Officers by Edwin John Prittie, c. 1912, from the Frontier Army Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Painting of two soldiers on horseback with red flag between and clouds behind, before treatment

Painting before treatment showing darkened varnish and discolored overpaint.

The colors of the painting were dramatically dulled and darkened by a discolored, oxidized varnish layer.  Paint loss damages, especially along the margins, had been covered up with excessive amounts of restoration paint, much of it covering perfectly intact original paint in the sky.  Because this overpaint was added when the varnish had already darkened, it was matched in color to the darkened appearance. 

Detail of painting showing half of it cleaned

Detail of the painting during treatment showing the original colors of painting on the left and the discolored varnish on the right.

The goal of the recent conservation treatment at the Ford Center was to clean the painting of the discolored varnish and all the mismatched overpaint once the areas of flaking along the margins were stabilized with locally-infused adhesives.  In order to give structural stability to the painting overall, the entire canvas was lined over the painting laboratory’s heated vacuum suction table to a new polyester support canvas and mounted to a new strong, adjustable wooden stretcher.  With the appropriate solvents the varnish was straightforwardly and easily removed.  The overpaint done with oil medium paint, however, was far more difficult and resistant to removal with the same solvent mixture.  The overpaint removal required using strong and toxic solvents – with proper ventilation – capable of stripping paint. 

After the cleaning and revarnishing, small local areas of paint loss were filled and retouched.  Discolored, darkened varnish layers have the unfortunate effect of “flattening” and compressing the sense of space intended by the artist.  Brighter original colors are now on display, as well as the effective illusionistic space.  

Painting of soldiers on horseback after treatment

Painting after treatment, returned to its original colors and depth.

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