We get a variety of objects that come in to the Ford Center for treatment. Most are from private clients, others come from museums and libraries, and some are from the Nebraska State Historical Society Collection. Sometimes the objects we work are historically significant, like Harry Truman’s belongings from World War I or the last document Abraham Lincoln signed before he died, but the treatments are straightforward. Other times, the objects themselves aren’t historically significant, but the treatment is fascinating. The object looks hopeless when it arrives and we’re able to not only stabilize it, but return it to closer to its original appearance. And every so often, we get a project that is both historically significant and requires and interesting treatment.
One such project was the painting, “Peter and Pavel” by Paul Powis which belongs to the Nebraska State Historical Society. It has a literary significance as it is believed to have been an inspiration for Willa Cather. The painting depicts two men in a shed being chased by wolves. This painting may have inspired Cather when she wrote the memorable scene of the wolves chasing the bridal party in My Antonia.
The curators brought the painting to our Paintings Conservator, Kenneth Bé to stabilize and repair two large gashes in the canvas. There was no record as to what had happened to the painting to cause this damage, but we knew it had been treated sometime in the past as it had been lined onto a new canvas backing. When the canvas had been lined, the person who did it had not realigned the tears in the painting, and gaps were still visible. Not only that, because the painting had been put on a new stretcher, if the old tears were to be realigned, it would create distortions in the rest of the canvas. This presented an interesting problem: how could the visual distraction of the tears be minimized without creating new distortions in the painting and possibly causing new tears to form from the strain?
Without attempting to physically narrow or close the tears, the gaps were instead filled with white gesso material, similar to a putty fill. These fills would be retouched to visually harmonize with the current state of the painting’s condition. The lower tear was mostly located across the foreground on snowy terrain in the painting; it would be straightforward to in-paint and disguise the loss. However, the upper tear was right over the horses’ heads! If the losses were filled to match the tops of the horses’ heads to their noses, the horses would look disfigured with too much vertical offset and retouching would grossly elongate their heads. Therefore, Kenneth decided the only thing to be done was to copy the horses’ heads within the gaps and then cover over the original paint of the top of the horses’ heads. (See the photos below) While it is not uncommon for a conservator to fill in losses and in-paint missing areas, it is very unusual for a conservator to paint over original parts of a work of art. However, this time it was in the best interest of the painting, both to ensure its stability and bring it closer to the artist' intended appearance. And, following the American Institute of Conservation’s Code of Ethics, the process was documented with before and after treatment photography and the treatment carried out is reversible so it can be undone in the future if the need ever arises.