WASHINGTON ALLSTON: POEMS, VEILS, AND “TITIAN'S DIRT”
JOYCE HILL STONER
3 ASPHALTUM TONINGS AND “TITIAN'S DIRT”
WASHINGTON ALLSTON used toned coatings, which were probably a nightmare for the first 19th-century restoration practitioners who approached his work. His practice was not unusual for his time: William Dunlap (1918, 2:306) describes landscape artist Richard Wilson's dispatching a porter for Indian ink and Spanish licorice, which he then dissolved in water and “washed half the pictures of the annual exhibition in Spring Gardens of the Society of Painters with the glaze considered 'as good as asphaltum.'” Benjamin West commented, “They were all the better for it.” Allston mixed what he called “Titian's dirt,” which was asphaltum, Indian red, and ultramarine plus megilp. One version included Japan size to make it dry faster, and one version did not, so he could work with it longer. Allston (quoted in Flagg 1893, 187) told Greenough, “With this I go over the face, strong in the shadows and lighter in the half-tints; with a dry brush or rag, I wipe off the glazing or weaken it as I wish, and in this way, model up the general form and detail … very much like water-color painting … left moist.”
Allston had a great interest in unity and harmony, and it is likely that versions of “Titian's dirt” were used throughout most of his career. The Greenough reference above mentions this technique in connection with Allston's early-in-life trip to Rome, so it is not just a later life phenomenon. William Gerdts (1969, 184) notes that many artists unwisely imitated Allston's use of asphaltum, which, he says, “gradually ruined many paintings.” Its use was especially damaging when it was used thickly. Even in the thin films distressed and partially removed by Allston himself, asphaltum could remain soluble.
Because of the presence of darkening megilp, soluble glazing, and the readily removable “Titian's dirt” coatings, the first restorer who cleaned each Allston painting may have changed it significantly. Now, at least six generations of owners later, finding an Allston painting that still has his original toning is probably unlikely. Allston himself “in 1839, on seeing his heavily glazed Diana in the Chase, after a lapse of twenty-four years, disclaimed real authorship of the work, saying that the picture cleaner had totally destroyed his conception” (Johns 1979, 70 n.79). However, conservator Mark Aronson was recently fortunate enough to study and treat Allston's Taming of the Shrew (1809, Philadelphia Museum of Art), which appeared to be an exception. After study of a cross-section of red drapery with fluorescent staining, he felt that the rough interface between the original varnish (which had an interactive zone with the original paint still present) and the later varnish suggested that varnish reduction had been carried out mechanically so there was little evidence of change of visual impact through solvent cleaning (Aronson, letter to author, December 23, 1988).
The Spanish Maid was most recently cleaned in 1980 by conservator Dianne Dwyer, while the author was a visiting scholar in the Paintings Conservation Studio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aware of Allston's glazing techniques, Dwyer reduced the varnish film rather than attempting to remove totally the discoloring varnishes applied since Allston's time.
Art historians are not often known for their close observation of the mechanics of picture cleaning; it is unusual and therefore telling that there are at least two overt references to problems caused by cleaning in the current art historical literature on Allston. Elizabeth Johns (1979, 70) comments about the Dead Man Revived (1811–14, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts): “Although nineteenth-century restoration removed many of Allston's glazing layers, one can still see evidence of his use of pure colors in glazes of red over blue, blue over gold, and blue over red, which pulled his tonalities into a unity based on the primary colors.” Chad Mandeles (1980, 145 n.9) writes regarding The Evening Hymn (1835, Montclair Art Museum) that he suspects “a shadow appeared over the woman's face which was removed, perhaps through overambitious cleaning, at some date prior to 1961.”
When he died, with Belshazzar's Feast still in progress on the easel, Allston was much respected by his peers for his gentle demeanor, “unearthly air” (Harris 1966, 237), and constant introspection. The walls of his studio were covered with his aphorisms about excellence, reverence, and humility and the importance of avoiding love of gain, envy, and pursuit of popularity. He is no longer particularly popular, and his poems have fallen into obscurity, but his later paintings and his writings, when discovered, offer misty visions of early 19th-century art theory and cautionary thoughts for art conservators.