Cleaning artifacts is an everyday occurrence here at The Henry Ford’s conservation department, as anyone who has ever looked into the windows of the lab at the back of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation knows. Still, it is not every day that stored paintings can be brought into the lab in view of guests to have detailed cleaning and preservation work done. Thanks to Susan and Henry Fradkin, with additional funds from The American Folk Art Society, that is changing this summer, as we address some of the folk art paintings from our sizeable collection.
The first painting to be selected for this project was an oil painting dating from the 1830s–1840s. The artist is unknown, but an inscription on the back of the painting notes that this is a portrait of “Sarah ... at age 4.” This painting was very dirty and yellowed with age. The paint layers were also unstable with some losses in the background. “Sarah” had been conserved in the late 1960s but needed more attention.
After examining the painting, the first steps in the conservation plan were to remove it from its frame and take the canvas off its stretcher, due to distortions from a previous wax-lining.
Removing the staples to take the painting off the stretcher.
Several areas of the painting had flaking and paint losses. To safely move forward with the rest of the conservation, it was necessary to consolidate those areas to ensure no further loss of paint. This was done by removing some of the excess wax on the reverse used to line the painting to a supporting piece of fabric. Wax-lining of paintings was previously used to preserve paintings, but is no longer the accepted technique due to the tendency of the wax to physically change the properties of the paint layers. Therefore, the wax on the back of the canvas was heated and carefully scraped off. These bits of wax were then reheated and placed into areas on the painted side of the canvas that had unstable paint layers.
Once the flaking paint was resecured, it was time to start cleaning. Over time, the natural resin varnish on the paint surface had yellowed, which is common with paintings. To reveal the original paint colors, the varnish layer was removed. To better understand what material is being removed from the surface, ultraviolet (UV) light is useful.
UV light to aid in cleaning.
With the use of UV light, varnish has a fluorescence that is different than the matte appearance of the original paint. The UV light tells conservators how thick a layer of varnish is and when we have successfully removed the varnish and exposed the original paint. UV light also shows distinctions between the original paint used by the artist and paint that was applied later, which appears black. In this case, we found that an area of the dress had been previously fixed after the canvas had torn.
Detail shot showing varnish removed from half of the painting.
Detail shot of varnish and dirt removal from the floor.
After testing several small areas with various cleaning solvents, we chose the best one for cleaning this painting. During cleaning, the details of the floor popped out, along with “Sarah” appearing much brighter. As the varnish was removed, it also revealed more areas of paint loss that would need inpainting. Before inpainting, we added fills to several areas where there was paint and gesso loss to create an even level when the new paint was applied.
Before and after adding fills to the areas of paint loss.
With the level fills in place, the painting could be re-stretched onto the stretcher before inpainting. Due to short tacking edges on the original canvas and wax-lining, we added new fabric with an adhesive film on all four edges. This process is called strip lining and the use of this extra material (we used sail cloth) helped strengthen the canvas during the re-stretching process.
Sail cloth added to edges of original canvas.
After adding the sail cloth, the material was wrapped around the stretcher, pulled taut with pliers, and heated to stay in place. After securing it to the back of the stretcher, extra sail cloth was cut away.
Re-stretching the canvas.
Canvas is re-stretched and extra sail cloth removed.
Over time, paint canvas stretches and tightens on its stretcher as humidity levels change. Some paintings can become too loose, and with the weight of an extra piece of fabric and excess wax, this painting was beginning to sag. Re-stretching the canvas helps to evenly disperse the tension of the canvas to the stretcher.
With the canvas re-stretched, it was time to inpaint. This is the process of adding new paint to areas that have previously lost paint. Paint colors are carefully mixed to match the existing paint.
Getting set up to inpaint.
Once the inpainting was dry, a new coat of varnish was brush-applied. New varnishes have been created that will filter out harmful UV rays, create a barrier layer to protect the paint from dust that can scratch the surface over time, and should no longer yellow with age. After letting the varnish cure, the last thing to do was return the painting to its frame, which had also been cleaned and inpainted.
The completed painting after conservation.
What’s next? Because of philanthropic support from Susan and Henry Fradkin and The American Folk Art Society, we can continue conservation work on another painting. Here is a sneak peek at an 1850s oil painting attributed to Fredrick E. Cohen: “King Strang and His Harem on Beaver Island.” If you are visiting the museum this summer, stop by the back of the museum and peek into the conservation lab to see its progress.
As we approach the Memorial Day holiday, when our thoughts turn toward lost loved ones and friends, it is insightful to consider how Americans of the past memorialized their loved ones.
Americans always treasured the memory of the dearly departed, but during the era just after American independence, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, elaborate and artistic memorials were the norm. Scholars debate the reasons. Many believe that with the death of America’s most revered founding father, George Washington, in 1799, a fashion developed for creating and displaying memorial pictures in the home. Other scholars argue that the death of Washington coincided with the height of the Neoclassical, or Federal style in America. During the period after the Revolution, Americans saw themselves as latter-day Greeks and Romans. After all, they argued, the United States was the first democracy since ancient times. So, they used depictions of leaders like George Washington, along with imagery derived from antiquity.
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for George Washington, by Mehetabel Wingate, 1800-1810 / THF6971
This wonderful memorial painting of George Washington was drawn in pencil and ink and painted in watercolors by a woman in Haverhill, Massachusetts, named Mehetabel Wingate. Born in 1772, Mehetabel was likely trained in painting as part of her education at an academy for genteel young ladies, much like a “finishing school” for young ladies in the 20th century. She also would have been tutored in the needle arts. The concept was to teach proper young ladies the arts as part of an appreciation for the “finer things” in life. This would prepare them for a suitable marriage and help them take their place in refined society.
In the academies, young women were taught to copy from artistic models for their work. In this case, Mehetabel Wingate copied a print engraved by Enoch G. Grindley titled in Latin “Pater Patrae” (“Father of the Country”) and printed in 1800, just after Washington’s death in 1799. Undoubtedly, she saw the print and was skilled enough to copy it in color. The image of the soldier weeping in front of the massive monument to Washington is impressive. Also impressive are the angels or cherubs holding garlands, and women dressed up as classical goddesses, grieving. One of the goddesses holds a portrait of Washington. Of course, the inscriptions tout many of Washington’s accomplishments. Mehetabel Wingate was a talented artist and ambitious in undertaking a composition as complicated as this one.
Watercolor Painting, Memorial for Mehetabel Bradley Wingate, by her daughter Mehetabel Wingate, 1796 / THF237513
Fortunately, The Henry Ford owns two additional works made by Mehetabel Wingate (1772–1846). From these, we can learn a bit about her life and her family. This remarkably preserved watercolor painting memorializes her mother, also named Mehetabel, who died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1796. Young Mehetabel, who would have been 24 in 1796, is shown mourning in front of a grave marker, which is inscribed. Although it is simplified, she wears a fashionable dress in the most current style. Around her is an idealized landscape, which includes a willow tree, or “weeping” willow, on the left, which symbolized sadness. On the right is a pine tree, which symbolized everlasting life. In the background is a group of buildings, perhaps symbolizing the town, including the church, which represented faith and hope. These are standard images seen in many, if not most, American memorial pictures. Mehetabel Wingate undoubtedly learned these conventions in the young girls’ academy in her hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Women in Classical Dress, 1790-1810, by Mehetabel Wingate / THF152522
The painting, above, while not a memorial painting, shows us how young ladies in the academies learned how to paint. Mehetabel seems to be practicing poses and angles, as the young ladies dressed as classical goddesses reach out to each other. It likely pre-dates both works previously shown and may have been done as a classroom exercise. As such, it is a remarkable survival.
In memory of Freeman Bartlett Jr. who died in Calcutta November the 1st 1817, aged 19 years, by Eliza T. Reed, about 1818 / THF14816
This example, painted later than Mehetabel Wingate’s work, shows the same conventions: a grieving female in front of a tomb with an inscription about the dearly departed—in this case, a young man who died at the tender age of 19 in far-off Calcutta. We also see the idealized landscape with the “weeping” willow tree and the church in the background.
Memorial Painting for Elijah and Lucy White, unknown artist, circa 1826 / THF120259
The painting above, done a few years later, shows some of the variations possible in memorial pictures. Unlike the previous examples, painted on paper, this was painted on expensive, white silk. It commemorates two people, Elijah and Lucy White, presumably husband and wife, who both died in their sixties. We see the same imagery here as before, although the trees, other than the “weeping” willows, are so abstract as to be difficult to identify.
Memorial Painting for Sarah Burgat, J. Preble, 1826 / THF305542
The example above represents a regional approach to memorial paintings. German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the late 1700s and early 1800s brought an interesting, stylized approach to their memorial paintings that have come to be known as “Fraktur.” The urn that would be seen on top of the monument in the previous examples now takes center stage, and is surrounded by symmetrically arranged birds. What we are seeing here is a combination of New England imagery, such as the urn, with Pennsylvania German imagery, such as the stylized birds. We know that this work was made in a town called Paris, as the artist, J. Preble, signed it in front of her name. There are two possible locations for Paris—one in Stark County, Ohio, and the other in Kentucky. Both had sizeable German immigrant populations in the 1820s. As America was settled and people moved west in the early 19th century, cultural practices melded and merged.
By the 1840s and 1850s, the concept of the memorial painting came to be viewed as old-fashioned. The invention of photography revolutionized the way folks could save representations of loved ones and friends. By the middle of the 19th century, these paintings were viewed as relics from the past. But in the early 20th century, collectors like Henry Ford recognized the historic and artistic value of these works and began to collect them. As a uniquely American art, they provide insight into the values of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc, Office Administrator for Historical Resources at The Henry Ford, for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
The Gettysburg battlefield monument depicted in this painting honors the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. The figure of the soldier looks out over the field where this famed unit fought fiercely on July 3, 1863 to help assure Union victory on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Their commander was 23-year-old Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, promoted only three days before. Gettysburg was the Michigan Brigade's first major engagement.
This "Wolverine Brigade" fought in every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from Gettysburg to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. A number of the surviving veterans were present at the monument's dedication in Gettysburg on June 13, 1889.
Jessie Zinn created this painting of the monument soon after. Did a proud Michigan Brigade veteran ask the 26-year-old Gettysburg artist to paint it? Did Michigan veterans commission the artwork to hang in their local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall?To learn more about Jessie's story, take a look at this special visit To Henry Ford.
“Opening the Door” is an unusual and large ( 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide) painting that recently received some much-needed conservation here at The Henry Ford.
Painted in the 1840s by self-trained artist George W. Mark, it depicts a young girl holding a flower. She stands in an elaborately-painted open doorway. Behind the girl a bust and lamp are visible on the table in a very shadowy room. The intent is to present a life-size vision that fools the eye into thinking that we are looking into a real space.
If you have the opportunity to take part in a VIP or Special Access tour of our Benson Ford Research Center storage, you will see this painting. It is greatly admired and it is positioned in a prominent location in the state-of-the-art storage facility here at The Henry Ford.
The painting needed conservation attention because it was not in stable condition after years of storage and many moves. Some of the damages were due to the challenges of handling – the painting is not framed, so corners got crushed when it was set down with too much force. And past attempts to hang it resulted in old patched holes near the top.
Take a look behind the scenes to see some of our work conserving "Opening the Door." This project was made possible by the generous support of The American Folk Art Society and Susan and Henry Fradkin.
Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable, Conservator Celina Contreras de Berenfeld, and Senior Conservator Clara Deck examine the work in progress.
This image shows the last old, yellowed varnish as it was removed from the paint surface.
This is a microscopic image of the thick varnish, before and during removal. The cracks (which are actually quite small!) are expected in a painting of this age and type.
Many paintings suffer over time due to the natural aging that darkens the once-clear protective varnish coat. As the varnish darkens, it shifts colors that were originally intense and bright; they become murky and brownish. Varnish removal restores the painting’s original colors. It is not unusual for old varnishes to require renewal, and this was done as part of an extensive conservation treatment completed last year.
Old patches were also redone so that they are invisible from the front and the whole painting was lined with stable backing material to support its large size. The restoration of damaged areas of the paint was done by “in-painting” only the small areas of lost paint. Finally a new, reversible varnish was applied overall.
The final result is a stronger, stable painting that can survive for at least another 171 years in the care of The Henry Ford.
Last November, I made a trip to the Benson Ford Research Library to see a small (8-by-6.75-inch) album of watercolor drawings made by Lewis Miller, a Pennsylvania German carpenter who lived from the time of the American Revolution to the Centennial. I have long been intrigued by his drawings, which have provided me with great material for the history of American landscape design, my specialization as an art historian.
Over the years I had seen hundreds of Miller’s drawings, which are primarily in two collections: the York Heritage Center, York, Penn., and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum, Williamsburg, Va. There are about 2,000 of his drawings in these collections. The album, however, is alone in Dearborn and how it got there is an interesting story.
Donald Shelley, former executive director of Henry Ford Museum was himself from York, and knew well “the Chronicler” of his hometown. When Miller’s album appeared on the market in New York in the 1960s, Shelley purchased it for The Henry Ford collection. In his introduction to the only major work on Miller, (Miller, Lewis. Lewis Miller, Sketches and Chronicles: The Reflections of a Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania German Folk Artist. York, Pa: Historical Society of York County, 1966) Shelley said Miller’s work was unmatched by that of any other American folk artist.
When the opportunity arose to write an online article for Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, my colleagues, Kathryn Barush, Emily Pugh, and I immediately saw that Miller, whose large body of work had not been seriously studied in almost fifty years, was an ideal topic. The Dearborn album is a guide to Central Park, the greatest public urban park in America. It offered a focused entry into both Miller’s worldview and into the study of the most important landscape undertaking of the nineteenth century, New York City's first public park. The 54 leaves are filled with watercolors of the park’s earliest features and structures and inscribed with English and German poems and commentary.
Upon seeing the album, my first reaction, after delighting in its bright colors and charm that are lost in reproductions, was to query, what is this object? Why did this folk artist make it? How does it relate to the rest of his work? Kathryn Barush undertook the identification of all the texts that filled the sketchbook, English and German. That was the first breakthrough in terms of understanding the breadth of Miller’s literary appetite: William Cullen Bryant, Shakespeare, Martin Luther--a miscellany of poems, fiction, and travel literature as well as botanical lists. Then the images, once analyzed, compared and decoded, revealed a wealth of pictorial sources that drew from newspapers, magazines and again, travel literature. Miller was not the naive folk artist we took him to be, but rather a man of his times, and his works were an omnium-gatherum of visual culture.
This study has taught us a great deal about the penetration of the new pictorial press, especially in the middle decades of the 19th century, when innovations in printing and photographic technology revolutionized popular publishing. It is fitting that today’s innovations in online publishing has made it possible to bring the Miller album to the Web in a multifaceted digital facsimile. The online article designed by Emily Pugh unifies traditional scholarly interpretation with new tools and links to rich digital resources. Thus, the Dearborn album is important for two reasons. First, its study provided a model for how digital humanities can be a tool to enhance scholarly communication. More significantly, it has provided a key to writing a new interpretation of Miller’s lifetime of drawing and writing, one which sees him not as an exponent of a closed tradition but as a person partaking very much in contemporary life, where the deluge of visual and textual culture impressed and shaped his worldview. This is just the beginning of a new history of Lewis Miller.
Therese O'Malley is associate dean at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She oversees the Center's publications and scholarly programs. Her scholarly publications have focused on the history of landscape architecture and garden design, from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, concentrating on the transatlantic exchange of plants, ideas, and people.
Her recent publications include Keywords in American Landscape Design (Yale University Press), The Art of Natural History, co-edited with Amy W. Meyers (National Gallery of Art), and several articles on aspects of the early profession of landscape design and the history of botanic gardens.
Objects in museum collections often tell rich stories—but sometimes you have to search for them.
A few months ago, The Henry Ford’s staff came upon an intriguing object in our collection—a late 19th century painting of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade Monument in Gettysburg, Penn. In this painting, the figure of a soldier at the top of the monument gazes out over the field where this famed Civil War unit fought fiercely on July 3, 1863, helping to assure Union victory on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Detail of Jessie’s signature on the Michigan Cavalry Brigade Monument painting.
We thought this painting would be a perfect choice for our upcoming Civil War Remembrance Weekend in Greenfield Village! The theme of this year’s display of objects from The Henry Ford’s collection was Michigan Soldiers in the Civil War. And 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.
Yet we knew virtually nothing about the painting—how could we tell its story to our visitors? The signature of the artist provided an intriguing clue. It read “Jessie C. Zinn/Gettysburg Pa.” But who was Jessie Zinn? And why did she choose this subject to paint?
Our search for answers to these questions took us from internet sources like Ancestry.com to places like Gettysburg and Williamsport, Penn., and Dallas, N.C. Along the way, we found helpful librarians and museum curators who provided information and gave us further leads for our search. To our great surprise, one of these leads put us in contact with Jessie’s grandson, Lawrence Lohr! Even more surprising, Mr. Lohr lived only about 30 miles from The Henry Ford.
It was exciting for The Henry Ford’s staff when Mr. Lohr paid us a visit to view his grandmother’s painting in mid-April. We had managed to learn quite a bit about Jessie in the previous couple of months. But Mr. Lohr shared photos of Jessie and rich stories that could only have come from family.
Here are some of the things we learned about Jessie Zinn.
Jessie had a very personal connection to the Battle of Gettysburg—she was born on a farm near the town the day after the battle! From 1868 through 1876, Jessie’s father ran a store in Gettysburg. The Zinn family then lived on an Adams County, Penn., farm for a few years, returning to Gettysburg by the late 1880s. Jessie moved to Dallas, N.C., in September 1890, where she served as head of the art department at Gaston College for Girls. Here, Jessie met Luther Lohr, a professor at the college, whom she married in July 1891 in Gettysburg. Luther then attended the Lutheran seminary in Gettysburg, graduating in 1894.
Jessie and Luther Lohr with their children, 1905. (Image courtesy of Lawrence Lohr)
In the early 1900s, Jessie and her young family—children Minnie, Lawrence, Elida, and Edmund—lived in Williamsport, Penn., where Luther served as minister at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Jessie Zinn Lohr died in Williamsport in 1905 of a kidney ailment. Then Jessie came back “home” to Gettysburg, where she was buried in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery.
But what of Jessie’s evocative painting of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument? A number of the surviving veterans of this brigade, also known as the “Wolverine Brigade,” were present at the dedication of the monument on June 13, 1889. Jessie Zinn likely created this painting of the monument soon after.
Did a proud Michigan Cavalry Brigade veteran ask the 26-year-old Gettysburg artist to paint it? Did Michigan veterans commission the artwork to hang in their local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R) Hall? And, if so, how did the client find out about Jessie’s skill as an artist? We don’t yet know. But we do know that Jessie painted one other Gettysburg battlefield scene of monuments near where Pickett’s Charge took place. And Jessie’s brother Merville ran the Gettysburg Hotel. Could a visiting Michigan veteran have seen that painting hanging in the hotel and then asked the Jessie to create one of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument? An interesting idea to ponder.
If you come to the Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village on Memorial Day weekend, you will see Jessie’s painting on exhibit in the Pavilion. And perhaps stand in the shoes of the unknown individual--Michigan Civil War veteran or not—who, by commissioning this painting, desired to have a tangible reminder of the valor and sacrifice of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade’s men to gaze upon.
As they’ve demonstrated before, being a curator often involves some sleuthing – see how a simple search uncovered the puzzling life of a 20th-century portrait painter for our curator of decorative arts.
Recently, while searching through our painting collection for portraits of Henry and Clara Ford, I came across two created in 1926 by an artist named Carl Bennett Linder. Displayed at Henry and Clara Ford’s Fair Lane home, these portraits came to Henry Ford Museum in 1951, following Clara’s death.
A search of our collections database revealed that we actually own nine canvases by Mr. Linder – all portraits of the Ford family. Curious, I searched the Ford family papers, where I found letters and receipts spanning from 1924 to 1936 for an even larger group of paintings of the extended Ford family: Henry and Clara’s son, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor; the Ford grandchildren; and even a portrait of Mrs. William Clay, Eleanor Ford’s mother. Mr. Linder was apparently a favorite artist of Henry and Clara, as he produced several portraits of them over the years.