Conservation of William H. Johnson’s Paintings

Date
  • NARRATOR: The works of American artist William H. Johnson came into the Smithsonian’s collection after suffering severe damage from years of neglect. A thorough analysis, including careful examination using raking light, reveals many structural problems with this portrait of a Danish fisherman.

    ANN CREAGER: This Johnson portrait, we suspect, had been off of the stretcher at one time and rolled and folded, and that would account for the severe buckling of the thick paint layer. The cracking is profound, and the burlap fabric that it’s painted on is deteriorated, fraying, and that has contributed greatly to the condition.

    NARRATOR: Paintings conservator Ann Creager plans a course of treatment based on the analysis. The first challenge is to relax the paint and bring the painting back in plane. The portrait is placed on a cushioned service, gently moistened covered with blotter paper, and placed under weights. This process is repeated several times over the course of a few weeks. The painting is then placed on moistened blotter paper and sealed onto a vacuum hot table. The heat and vacuum pressure continue the flattening process.

    AC: It’s really, in a way, a little steam treatment, too, because you’ve got the moisture and the heat, and this actually brought the painting back in plane and relaxed the paint as much as I could hope for. It’s the challenge that’s the fun in conservation. If it was the same kind of work we did every day on paintings that just needed a little spiffing up, or tarting up, as we like to say, that would get kind of “old hat” very quickly.

    NARRATOR: Once the paint is safely attached to the surface, it’s possible to fill and stabilize the deep cracks. Each step of the process requires skill, patience, and care so as to protect as much of the artist’s original work as possible. One of the final steps, in painting, replicates the surrounding areas and colors.

    AC: I can make it sparkle. Making it look terrific is very gratifying, but the fun part for me is the structural. That’s where the challenge is, bring it back to its safe condition.

    NARRATOR: Now that the paint is secure and the structure sound, it’s ready for the museum to exhibit.

    Before treatment begins, paintings come to our lab for examination and documentation. If physical deterioration or damage has occurred on any one of the complex layers of a painting, the structural part of a conservation treatment is done here. Conservators try to intervene as little as possible but serious damage does need to be treated so that the artist's work is not lost. In this lab, conservators carefully work to mend tears, secure flaking paint, relax buckling canvas, rejoin cracks, and remove unstable materials.

    Media Series