Wandering the galleries, our visitors enjoy discovering the latest additions to the museum’s collections. However, the discoveries often begin before newly acquired works are ever installed. When a new work arrives, together our curators and conservators begin extensive research as well as cleaning and preservation work that deepen their collective knowledge of an artist and a work of art. A recently completed conservation project on a new acquisition unearthed incredible findings and understandings.
For five years Dean Yoder, conservator of paintings, pored over a suite of five monumental paintings the museum acquired in 2003. Painted by French artist Charles Meynier in the last years of the 1700s, Apollo and the Muses depict the classical Greek muses of epic and lyrical poetry, eloquence, history, and astronomy. The works now appear in their full glory in the Cutler gallery in the museum's 1916 building, featuring neo-classical paintings and sculpture.
The paintings were originally commissioned by François Boyer-Fonfrède, a wealthy textile merchant, for a grand gallery in his large townhouse in Toulouse, France. However, after Boyer-Fonfrède went bankrupt, the paintings were purchased by General de Castella and moved in 1824 to his castle in Wallenried, Switzerland, where they remained for nearly 180 years. A wing specifically designed to exhibit the paintings was added to the castle in anticipation of the arrival of the oversized works. The French art historian Dr. Isabelle Mayer-Michalon rediscovered the paintings during research for her doctoral thesis. She considers these five paintings to be among Meynier’s greatest masterpieces.
When Yoder was introduced to the paintings, they showed signs of neglect. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity at the castle caused cracking in the paintings’ surfaces, and over time the sheer weight of the canvases caused the tacking edges to deteriorate and pull away from their stretchers, creating large drape-like buckles. Most of the paintings also exhibited various degrees of “traction crackle,” where a paint layer on the surface shrinks faster than a layer underneath, resulting in wide cracks revealing the underlying paint layer of a different color. Original hand-carved frames, though intact, also needed a great deal of conservation work to address deterioration of their gesso and gold.
All of the paintings needed reduction of their varnish layers, which had grown dull and discolored to a brownish-orange tinge over time. Images of the paintings before conservation reveal dark, dull, and murky areas of the compositions, as if the muses were stepping out of a dense fog. Meynier’s rich color harmonies, flowing brushwork in the muses’ clothing, and symbolic images were buried under the murky varnish and grime.
In Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry, a radical intervention was made by an artist on behalf of the owner in which a prudish white veil was painted over the body of Cupid many years after Meynier had died. This was evident during the examination and confirmed by the existence of a watercolor by the artist and an etching that documented the Salon of 1801, both showing that Cupid’s veil was not part of the original painting. Closer investigation and testing revealed beautifully intact original paint layers beneath the veil.
“The overpainting of Cupid was very crude,” explains Yoder. “It was very different from the hand of the artist. It had less crisp and distinct contours than Meynier’s other drapery and was on top of a varnish layer. We took cross sections, and as we looked at the layering, we could see one very thick, aged amber-colored varnish coating below the ‘modesty drapery.’ It had probably aged for at least 75 years before Cupid’s drapery was added. Fortunately, the thick and brittle aged varnish made it feasible to remove.”
Working carefully under magnification, conservators spent well over a hundred hours mechanically removing the 180 square inches of overpainted veil. Scalpels were reshaped and constantly resharpened in order to carefully chip away the overpaint without harming the underlying original paint. Not only did Cupid emerge the way he was meant to be, the entire composition became more unified in Meynier’s flowing technique.
One of the more surprising results of the conservation has been the emergence of Meynier as a great colorist. His use of juxtaposed, muted complementary colors in draperies and skin tones create beautiful soft vibrancies that undulate throughout the entire suite of paintings.
“The most challenging aspect of this five-year project was to maintain the proper degree of cleaning and inpainting between all of the paintings, as the specific needs of each painting were being addressed. For this reason, paintings requiring the most work were paired and treated simultaneously with those needing less work,” says Yoder.
After living with these paintings for five years, spending thousands of hours inpainting, and bringing much passion to the project, Yoder expresses affection for them. “They are quite unique for an American museum; during my travels, I haven’t really seen anything that matches their scale and quality in this country.”