Until this past Wednesday, there was a painting that hung in the center hallway above a heavy sofa decorated with glassy-eyed wooden lions. The title: “Servants Preparing Fowl and Fruits for Their Master”. But it was difficult to tell who was the servant and who was the master, and as a matter of fact, what was a fowl and what was a fruit. I think there were even cats, a monkey and dogs in the mix. But who knew? Ones’first impression upon seeing this painting was a black abyss with a few eyeballs scattered about, twinkling like constellations and some amorphous shapes bending over what appeared to be dead birds and some turnips. Do you see what I mean?
Although its appearance gave the painting an air of mystery and an impression of age, as Mr. Mathis undoubtedly felt was appropriate for the front hall, something had to be done. Enter Mark van Gelder of Art Conservation Services of Austin.
Last July, Villa Finale had arranged for Mark to survey all of the oil paintings in the house – there are over 160 – in order to determine which paintings needed to be conserved before the museum opened. It is common for paintings, by no fault of anyone in particular, to age and degrade, and suffer paint and surface tension loss as a result. There were a number of paintings in the house that we knew were in need of stabilization, but Mark gave us a detailed list of conservation priorities and recommended treatments. The “Servants” were close to the top of the list. A few pictures are worth a thousand words.
This painting is truly a bit of a mystery. It was painted by a follower of Leandro Bassano b.1557-d.1622), an Italian painter of renown whose pieces hang anywhere from the Louvre to the Museum of Fine Art in Cleveland. It measures four by five and a half feet, and upon close observation, really is bustling with activity. Bassano typically depicted religious subjects, but seemed to enjoy painting subjects as commonplace as people gathered in a kitchen -more food prep! – and portraiture. The sad thing is that we do not actually know who painted our painting, although it may be revealed with cleaning and restoration. Mr. Mathis purchased the painting from a South Carolina antiques dealer in 1941. Who owned it before, we do not know, either.
From its appearance, we can safely say the painting has a checkered past. It has been torn, repeatedly repaired, stretched and re-stretched, waxed, touched-up, heavily varnished and even folded at some point. Which leads me back to Wednesday and the fate of the “Servants” and their darkened fruits and fowl.
That afternoon, the painting was removed from the hallway by professional art movers and placed on a prepared surface on the library floor. The painting is the largest in the museum and also the first that would greet visitors as they entered the house. The painting is also the first, since the house rose to museum status, to depart for conservation. Its absence is alarming!
The art movers carefully wrapped the painting in a sort of breathable museum-grade Saran Wrap called Dartek and sandwiched it in heavy cardboard. There was no need to crate the painting as it was traveling overnight to Austin with no stops or waylays.
Mark will keep the painting for at least eight months. During that time, he will slowly and carefully re-stretch the canvas before he begins painstakingly removing old clumpy varnish, badly re-touched areas and other “accretions”, as he calls them, after which he’ll re-varnish the entire piece and inpaint where there have been losses. He will basically return the painting to as near its original state as possible.
Soon we will be able to see the painting with greater clarity than ever- and who knows, maybe those are really turnips….