Honoré Daumier was born this day, 26 February, in 1808. Here is a look at a technical study undertaken by painting conservator Elizabeth Steele in 1999 of his small oil painting on a wooden panel, The Strongman, ca. 1865.
Honoré Daumier, The Strongman, ca. 1865. Oil on wood panel, 10 5/8 x 13 7/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1928
The x-radiograph of The Strongman attests to Daumier’s frequent custom of reworking a composition. A completely different figure wearing a striped jacket and a bicorne (two-cornered hat) lies beneath the man on the far right. In an earlier state, the curtain in the center of the painting was draped lower across the doorway. The bright white in the left half of the x-radiograph indicates the density of the paint in this area and reflects the number of times these passages were reworked. The heads of some of the figures in the background appear to have been shifted and the clown may have originally looked back towards the strongman instead of out at the viewer. By contrast, the dark torso of the strongman indicates little to no reworking of the painting’s main character.
The painting’s strongly textured and deeply cracked surface reflects Daumier’s practice of painting one layer on top of the next without allowing for the underlying paint applications to fully dry. A microscopic paint cross-section taken from the upper left reveals no less than eight distinct layers in this heavily-reworked picture. The bottom layer is the white ground (1), followed by a thin red (2), a white (3), a dark brown (4), a thin light brown (5), a thicker red (6), another dark brown (7), and finally an ochre-colored layer at the top (8). In addition, beeswax was discovered in some passages. The beeswax may have served as an isolating layer between paint applications when changes to the composition were being made. This unorthodox technique of using a non-drying wax, a material readily available in Daumier’s studio for printmaking, may also account for the wrinkled appearance of the paint film.
“Pheasant” by Chaim Soutine, ca. 1926-ca. 1927, in the conservation studio. Photo: Patricia Favero
Halloween seems a good day to bring this creepy painting into the conservation studio to begin examination and treatment.
Read part one and part two in this series.
After drying The Studio Table (1923), it was noted that some adhesive still remained in the paper, creating distortions and discoloration. Identification of the adhesive was made using examination with ultraviolet light and spot tests. A gelatin specific enzyme was selected to remove the residual adhesive and brushed onto the margins under a controlled temperature and humidity setting. The print was then rinsed to remove any excess enzyme and a Japanese stippling brush was used to encourage the leftover adhesive to come loose. After drying between felts, it was observed that the adhesive had successfully been removed along with much of the staining in the margins. Click on the thumbnails below to view the process.
1. DT After drying, adhesive still remained on the surface.
2. DT Adhesive residue still distorted the paper.
3. DT Adhesive residue fluoresced under UV visible illumination.
4. Adhesive tests
5. DT Preparation of mylar tray for enzyme treatment.
6. DT Preparing the enzyme solution.
7. DT Applying the enzyme to the adhesive residue on a temperature controlled platform.
8. DT Covering the print during enzyme treatment.
9. DT Rinsing of adhesive broken down by enzyme.
In addition to the previous mat being glued onto the piece, the mat board behind the print was composed of poor quality materials and had likely been in place for more than 50 years, which led to discoloration in the form of a matburn surrounding the image area of the print. A reducing agent solution was brushed onto the stain in tiny dots with a tiny brush in order to diminish it. The print was again rinsed, then rehumidified and dried between felts.
10. DT Preparation of solution for reducing the mat burn.
11. DT Application of solution to matburn.
12. DT Final rinsing.
13. DT After complete drying, rehumidification in preparation for final flattening.
14. DT Print drying between felts.
Here you can see the dramatic difference in the print’s condition before and after treatment. The Studio Table is currently on display on the second floor of the Sant Building as part of the Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life exhibition until September 1, 2013.
Caroline Hoover, Conservation Assistant
Studio Table before treatment, left, and after treatment, right.