The Restoration of the “Isabella” Portrait

The female portrait in the Isabella Room in Spokane’s Davenport Hotel has always been the central focal point of what was originally the hotel’s dining room. Popularly called “Isabella,” the woman in the picture, of course, has nothing to do with Queen Isabella of Spain who enabled Columbus to set off for the New World in 1492. This woman is in the French fashion of the 18th century. Since it is unsigned and there is no record of exactly where it came from, the picture’s age is uncertain. A possible clue came to light during the Davenport’s renovation of 2000-2002 when the painting was cleaned and repaired.

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By 2000 the piece displayed the ravages of age and neglect. Grime and discolored varnish had given it a murky appearance. Holes in it were rumored to have come from champagne corks shot at it. Crude retouchings to mask areas marred by numerous pinhead-sized paint losses had been done with oil paint mixed to match the brown surface dirt and dark varnish.

Before the relatively recent development of non-yellowing picture varnishes, oil paintings were typically varnished with solutions of natural resins, which gave them a beautiful gloss and rich depth to the colors. These resins, however, have the downside of turning brown with increasing age, which in some quarters had given rise to the notion that the Old Masters intended their works to look that way.

It was not uncommon for 19th-century restorers to add brown pigments to the varnish they applied to cleaned paintings to give them an “Old Masters golden glow,” as it was called. Some rather fierce controversies arose in the 20th century when beloved old paintings were stripped of their familiar brown tone to reveal surprisingly brilliant colors.

In was also not unusual in the past, before the field of art conservation was developed and put on a scientific basis, to use some very harsh means to clean paintings. It is indeed a rarity to find Old Master paintings that have not been messed with in some way, with evidence of over-cleaning and having been painted over in areas. The “Isabella” portrait is one such example.

Before removing the old varnish, the painting was taken out of the frame and given a close examination. The holes were filled and spot tests were done to assure that solvents used to take of the varnish would not also dissolve the paint.

During the cleaning process, I observed that areas of thick oil paint at the upper left side and top were of a very different texture than that of the original painting and had been applied on top of the dark varnish. The texture and nature of the brushstrokes were that made by commercial tube artists’ oil paint and very unlike the smooth fluidity of the original painting. These over-paintings came off easily with the varnish, to reveal not only the pinhead paint losses but the original detail they had masked. Their ready solubility suggested they had been fairly recently applied. Old oil paint films normally become increasingly resistant to solvents with age.

Later in the cleaning process I came upon a rather curious passage. In the drapery behind and to the right of the figure, varnish removal revealed places where an original, thin grayish glaze was missing. This glaze had been applied over the whole figure and drapery. It is a historical technique used in 18th-century French painting. The colors were painted much brighter than the intended final result and then harmonized and softened by an overall glaze, which also added greater depth to the paint. It was plainly original in the “Isabella” portrait because of its degree of insolubility and the aesthetic effect it provided. For example, beneath this gray glaze, the woman’s dress was a shockingly bright pink, which would have been totally out of keeping with the rest of the painting.

Evidence suggested that the missing gray glaze sections had come about during a previous cleaning. The coating that was coming off in this area was much darker than the rest of the varnish and this strongly indicated that a restorer in the past had covered over a mistake by mixing brown pigment with varnish. This was further strengthened by discovering this very dark brown varnish in other places, such as shading on the right sides of the lower portions of the woman’s gown. This implied that going over the drapery section with a dark coating also made it necessary to darken other areas, correspondingly. The use of varnish instead of oil paint can be accounted for by the fact that varnish dries a great deal faster than oil colors. Because these brown areas were of the same solubility as the overall varnish, unlike the rest of the paint (including the gray glaze), I concluded they were not original and removed them.

Another finding was in the sky immediately above the drapery to the right of the figure (the red arrow in the illustration). The paint was smoothly blended, unlike the crude, later over-painting, but was of a different color and pattern than the rest of the sky. It was removable with the same solvent, very possibly because it was also mixed with varnish.

The fairly sizable area of old retouching in the sky was removed and recreated in a way more in keeping with the surrounding colors and clouds. The missing areas of gray glaze and pinhead paint losses were carefully touched up so as not to overlap surrounding undamaged areas. The picture was then varnished with a non-yellowing and reversible conservation varnish. A much fresher and lighter, more harmonious picture resulted, possibly such as had never been seen since the painting came to the Davenport.

The evidence of an old repair job offers a possible clue to the painting’s age. Clearly it was not a new painting when it came to the hotel. A scenario suggests itself. The painting had come to a picture dealer, possibly in France. An unverified report has noted that Mr. Davenport had gone on a European buying trip prior to the opening. Pride of an Empire, the hotel guide book published in 1915, described the picture as being by “Nattier,” which cannot be substantiated, but it is possible that it was sold as a Nattier. Picture dealers routinely sent paintings to restorers (often artists, not at that time trained conservators) to be spruced up before going to the showroom. Either then or at some earlier time the painting suffered the damages noted and was touched up to make it visually acceptable.

The artist’s technique and the look of the paint itself are not typical of the 19th century but of the previous one. It has the typical craquelure of very old paintings on canvas.

Oil paint eventually becomes brittle with age. Researchers at the Smithsonian have demonstrated that the crackling comes from the animal glue “size” that was applied to the raw fabric to seal it against the acidity of the oil. This glue size readily absorbs moisture from the air and it is the resulting expansion and contraction with variable humidity that makes breaks in the paint film once it has become sufficiently brittle.

Natural resin varnishes, such as the one that was removed here, eventually turn yellow-brown, but this takes time and the implication that varnish was removed once before suggests a date of likely, at the least, 100 years before it came to Spokane. The subject, costume, and overall sensibilities are from the Ancien Régime, well before the Revolution of 1789, and consistent with the style under Louis XV. It is not a masterwork on a par with the great artists of the period but it is very fluently and confidently painted. What I am wondering is, if it is a 19th -century production, as suggested by some who have not seen it, where would a 19th-century artist have learned these techniques, which had largely been abandoned after the Revolution, and why would the artist have executed a subject such as this?

(See also “The ‘Isabella’ Portrait” at thehistoricdavenporthotel.com)

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Inglenook

Inglenook

This painting was finished in 1985, when I was living in Napa, CA. It was purchased by the owners of the Inglenook winery shortly thereafter and it hung in the private dining room at the estate for a number of years. A best selling poster was made from it, along with a gift tin made in England. At some point the property’s ownership was transferred and the painting disappeared. I have recently learned that the picture is now in a private home in the Napa Valley.

The estate is now owned by Francis Ford Coppola, who has also acquired the Inglenook name, which had been used for a brand of jug wines for a number of years. Premium wines are once again being produced under the Inglenook name.

Reflections

Reflections light

The kernel idea for the picture that became Reflections came about in the Spring of 2001. The painting, Janice With an Amphora had been installed in the Marie Antoinette Ballroom of the Davenport Hotel in her memory, since she had so much to do with the decor treatments we had together come up with for the renovation of that room. She had died before seeing its completion.

Looking at it one day it occured to me that I hadn’t quite gained my object. I had been seeking a way to convey a female gracefulness and dignity in a timeless way, hence the simple Grecian tunic (or chiton). There was something I had not attained. The garment was really a studio prop, not something one would be able to wear in public here and now.

This way of thinking came from a general dissatisfaction with contemporary dress, male and female, from an aesthetic and artistic point of view. I wanted to see flowing garments and, except for tailored business suits, female attire was typically form hugging, with the exception of a few skirts.

There came a wish to improve on the former painting by trying to design a draped garment that was based on the Greek tradition but which was something a person could wear now without appearing to have just come from a costume party.

So I bought first some cheap fabric and started trying to sew. I had an idea for what I wanted to see but it proved beyond my very limited knowledge of sewing, so I sought out costumers and seamstresses. Another difficulty was finding the right model.

Several months passed before any progress was made, though I did find encouragement. One day I saw in the park across the street four Indian women wearing saris, two young ones in pale green and two matrons wearing white. They were walking across a large lawn and the flow of the drapery was lovely. The young ones were nonchalantly tossing the fabric over their left arm, unconsciously, playfully. The elder ladies walked with a dignity of bearing, very feminine and beautiful, though more stout of form. One of the reasons for wanting to create and depict a draped dress was this very purpose. There is such a preoccupation with being and staying thin, yet these women in saris were lovely and womanly just as they were. This brief vision gave me a poetic surge to continue toward the project, feeling sure it was the right track.

I wasn’t getting very far with the garment but one day in the autumn I saw the model I wanted to use, setting tables for an event in Davenport Hotel lobby. By this time it had become clear to me that it should be a lady in an evening gown, not a street dress, if I wanted to “get away with” this drapery idea. And this had merged with another ambiton of mine: to paint an elegant lady in the setting of the Davenport, and I now knew exactly where I wanted it to be: in the Isabella Ballroom with it’s reflecting mirrors at either end. I also knew I wasnted one with a beautiful but out of the ordinary face and Becky was perfect.

It took a bit of inquiry to trace her down but when I had, and she she agreed, we began taking photographs for the figure’s placement. A lot of photographs!

It soon became clear that to get the architecture of the room that I wanted, with the mirrors, there would have to be another figure. There had to be a logic to why she was standing there, in an elegant ballroom, and it wasn’t to be admiring herself in the mirror.

I must spare the reader more details of the process. It ended up being over 4 years before I called the painting done. And 4 seamstresses.

My other model, Mary, came along after I was sure that there needed to be two women interrupted in conversation. Having abandoned the first dress as hopeless, I went to another dressmaker who started over and came up with the transverse folds. This proved a godsend because I was soon had two gowns and two models.

Or, well, not exactly. The figure on the right, Becky, is wearing the garment that was my original idea. That gown, however, still does not physically exist and what is seen in the painting was patched together from one that was constructed with some poor direction on my part. What there is does not fit Becky! The wine colored gown does and was made for her. The other one fits Mary! Though the owners of the Davenport bought the painting as soon as they saw it, the one gown, which with a little more work could possibly be worn in public, has not been. The painting exists but not the new fashion.

A Type of Womanhood

The motivation for this painting sparked in 1997, when I went to see an exhibition of the work of the Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum, at the renovated Frye Art Museum in Seattle. His work, in a painterly “Old Masters” style and technique was very compelling but also extremely disturbing, with titles like Woman Killing an Injured Man. There was a piece called Isola, less dark in its content, and it was of a woman standing full length, facing the viewer, and a draped, wrapped garment, set in an undefined space against a black background. I took it as an image of a Type of Womanhood, in a timeless setting. Though the figure was smiling and unthreatening I was struck but what to me was an essential lack of grace. The word “clunky” came to mind. A link to the Nerdrum painting is here. http://www.nerdrum.com/works/index.php?id=6

I came away wanting to somehow counter it, to offer a Type of Womanhood that did have grace, yet was also timeless. The result was the only oil portrait of my late wife, entitled Janice With an Amphora.