Disappearing Act

Amy Bracken Sparks Assistant Editor, Publications

Most of us want our work to be noticed. We want to create something that didn’t already exist: a product, a report, a change in the landscape, an event. Not so with fine art conservators. They do not want their work to be obvious. 

“If you do it right, your work becomes invisible,” says painting conservator Dean Yoder. “I get a lot of pleasure when I see my work disappear.”

For five years Yoder, of Yoder Conservation in Cleveland, along with assistants Marissa Racht Ryan and Brooke Barker, has been poring over every inch of five massive paintings the museum acquired in 2003. Painted by French artist Charles Meynier in the last years of the 18th century, Apollo and the Muses will appear for the first time as a fully restored set when the museum reopens the upper level of the 1916 building in June. 

Polymnia, Muse of Eloquence, 1800 (2003.6) Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry, 1802 (2003.6.1)

The experience should be memorable. The paintings’ sheer size (each is nine feet tall) and their life-size subjects will loom over the viewer, who, Yoder hopes, won’t see any of the inpainting, varnish removal, or evidence of the work of any other hand but the artist’s. 

“The story about these paintings is still emerging,” he says. “There were originally supposed to be nine paintings altogether, but after five the progress was called off.” Apparently, the businessman who commissioned the works, François Boyer-Fonfrede, went bankrupt. A rough drawing exists showing how the nine paintings would have been installed in Boyer-Fonfrede’s townhouse. 

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry, 1800 (2003.6.2) Clio, Muse of History, 1798 (2003.4)

But for most of their 209-year life, the paintings have been either exhibited or stored at a castle in Fribourg, Switzerland. In 1819 Nicolas-Antoine de Castella bought the paintings at auction and in 1824 moved them to his family estate, Wallenreid Castle, where they remained until 2003. 

“I’ve been to the castle,” says Yoder. “It’s pretty small for a ‘castle,’ but it’s a very nice home. There was a special room made for the paintings.”

Yoder, who is working in concert with the museum’s paintings conservator Marcia Steele, is careful to say that the paintings were not “damaged.” But he admits they showed signs of neglect. Fluctuations in humidity at the castle caused some cracking in the paintings’ surfaces. According to the art conservator, however, cracks happen for a variety of different reasons and in different ways.

Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, and Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy, 1798 (2003.5) All John L. Severance and Greta Milliken Purchase Fund

“In most of the paintings I was dealing with what’s called ‘traction crackle,’” Yoder explains, “where a layer on the surface tends to shrink faster than the layer underneath.” This kind of crackling happens early in a painting’s life. 

All of the paintings, which depict the classical Greek muses of epic and lyrical poetry, eloquence, history, and astronomy, needed overall cleaning due to the buildup of grime and varnish, which had given them a brownish-orange tinge. Their original frames, though intact, also needed cleaning and reconstruction of missing gesso and ingilding. 

Images of the paintings before conservation reveal dark, murky, and muddy areas of the compositions, as if the muses were stepping out of the shadows. Their tones were yellowed, details were blurred, and in one notable case, a white veil had been painted over the body of Cupid many years after Meynier had died. In general, Meynier’s careful brushwork in the muses’ clothing and the symbolic images surrounding their bodies were clotted and unclear. 

Jon Seydl, curator of European Painting and Sculpture, is excited to see the paintings restored and exhibited. Though Seydl was not on staff when the Meyniers were acquired (Sylvain Bellenger was the curator at the time, and instrumental in acquiring them), he had heard about the sale, and about the conservation work that was needed. “The cleaning—as Marcia and Sylvain knew it would all along—really proved how interesting, complicated, and varied Meynier’s work is,” he says.

In Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry, Cupid is depicted as a boy bringing inspiration to the muse. The sweeping white veil extending from his right hand has been removed. The conservators knew, based on a watercolor by the artist and an etching that documented the Salon of 1801, that Cupid’s veil was not part of the original painting. Sure enough, thermal imaging revealed the feathers of a wing beneath the veil. 

“The overpainting of Cupid was very crude,” Yoder explains. “It was very different from the hand of the artist. It had blurry contours and was on top of a thick layer of varnish. We did cross-sections, and as we looked at the layering, we could see one very thick amber-colored varnish coating. It had aged for more than 75 years before Cupid’s drapery was put on. Fortunately, that made it feasible to remove it.” 

It took 100 hours to remove the overpainting. “We removed it mechanically with tools under magnification. We took scalpels and reshaped them in order to carefully pick away the overpaint.” Yoder explains that the tools couldn’t be too sharp or too dull, and the conservators had to sharpen them about every ten minutes. Not only did Cupid emerge the way he was meant to be, but the whole painting is much greener than the muddy work that Yoder started with. 

After years of working with magnification, Yoder knows every square inch of these paintings, but he’s partial to Clio, the Muse of History, and to the aforementioned Erato. He refers to them by name. “I think Calliope needed the most amount of inpainting. She happened to have the most cracking. With older paintings like these, the cracking paint creates white cracks on dark passages—it’s very distracting. After the inpainting, the forms start to emerge.”

But, he explains, not all the cracks can be fixed or filled. He starts with the widest cracks, and goes to the next level, and then the next level, until he gets to a certain point. That’s when he pulls in a fresh set of eyes—like the curator and another conservator. 

After living with these paintings for five years, Yoder expresses affection for them. “I like them all in different ways. They’re all very interesting. Unique.”

And when the viewer leans in close, Yoder’s work won’t be visible. “If your work melds in close up, it should just be beautiful.”  

Clio takes a rest in the museum conservation lab.

 

 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2008