JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 129 to 139)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1993, Volume 32, Number 2, Article 4 (pp. 129 to 139)

UNDERSTANDING THE TECHNIQUES OF AMERICAN TONALIST AND IMPRESSIONIST PAINTERS

LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS



2 PAINT AND ADDED MEDIA

It might have been expected that the American tonalists mixed varnish or other media into their paint or interlayered paint with varnish or oil, since they were the heirs to the French Barbizon painters and to American painters like Inness, who are documented to have done all of these things (Inness 1917). Henry Rankin Poore's (1859–1940) overmantel painting, The Fox Chase (1901–1905), in the Florence Griswold House, which includes caricatures of many of the Old Lyme artists at work, has the words “School of Lyme” flanked by depictions of the two liquids that fueled the painters: mastic resin and rye whiskey. The bottle of mastic is a comment on Henry Ward Ranger, the founder of the art colony who was a strong advocate of mastic varnish, which he used as an ingredient in glazes and in a yellow-toned underlayer into which he painted (Bell 1914). Others talked about Ranger's “golden or russet” tone (Isham 1927, 447); Childe Hassam called it the “baked apple school” (quoted in Andersen 1980, 125).

Ranger's use of varnish mixed in his paint and in a layer below his paint has created different kinds of problems in his paintings. Autumn Woodlands (1902, Florence Griswold Museum) has large amounts of resin mixed into the upper layers of paint that have resulted in solubility problems and possibly contributed to the development of a wide network of traction crackle. In another painting (Connecticut Landscape, 1901, Lyman Allyn Art Museum), Ranger painted his sky over a yellow resinous underlayer; he said he liked to paint into a such an underlayer because yellow is the tone of sunshine (Bell 1914, 108), although in this case the resin appears to have become increasingly yellow over time.

The Wood Chopper (1906, Florence Griswold Museum), by the American tonalist Louis Paul Dessar (1867–1952), has resin mixed with and interlayered with the paint, so that the paint is extremely soluble. It had been spot-cleaned in the past; only the lighter areas were cleaned, damaging some of the artist's glazes. Fear of damage during cleaning, when glazes are removed and the tonal balance disturbed, made some of the tonalist painters develop a deep dislike of restorers (discussed below).

The media that tonalist painters added to their paint obviously varied. Period photographs of the artists at work often show, clipped to the edge of the palette, a double palette cup or “dipper.” Traditionally, one of the cups would hold diluent and one would hold a medium; determining what was in those cups has been one of our pursuits.

There is strong oral tradition that Gifford Beal (1879–1956) used a new, experimental medium when he painted a door panel at the Florence Griswold House. His paint took so long to dry that the other artists made a joke of testing it with their thumbnails when they went in and out the door, with results that are still visible.

Henry C. White and Nelson C. White were known to use Mussini medium, which Dwight Tryon also used (White 1930). Roger Dennis told us that Mussini medium was dark and fluid and made the paint flow well but grew darker with time. Nelson H. White is also aware that it turned dark. While no bottle of Mussini medium survives in the White family studio, there are tubes of paint and jars of medium that date from the first years of this century, including a bottle of Schmincke Medium No. 3, the label of which instructs the artist to apply it to sunken-in spots and then paint into it while it was still wet.

The selection of colors that a painter put on his or her palette became an important issue when impressionism first arrived in the United States in the 1880s. Henry Rankin Poore wrote of his colleagues: “Plunging beneath the tide, they came up with the rainbow tints snapping in their eyes and cleansed of every vestige of bitumen and Van Dyke brown” and “bought no more brown or umber” (Poore 1914, 161–62).

The studio of the impressionist painter William Chadwick has not been used for many years, but Chadwick's easel and other studio equipment, unused panels and canvases, frames, and shipping crates survive, as well as brushes, painting boxes, tubes of paint (including Winsor and Newton, Rembrandt, and Hi-test brands), and a number of palettes. We examined the remains of paint on Chadwick's surviving palettes and did not find any black or brown paint.

An unfinished painting by Guy Wiggins (1883–1962) (Connecticut River Landscape, n.d. Saint Joseph College) shows how Wiggins began with a very free chalk drawing, directly on a bare wooden support, followed by a rough blocking in with flat areas of color. Close examination of a completed painting on the other side of the panel shows that there are still traces of the first sketchy design, which were not covered by the more detailed reworking. An impressionist sketch by William Merritt Chase (Shinnecock Hills, 1891, Wadsworth Atheneum) is inscribed by the artist: “sketch made to illustrate one way to begin a study.” It shows how Chase worked up the design using quick, bold strokes that left a great deal of white ground exposed and achieved the effects of light and texture with an economy of means.

We found that many of the impressionist painters added media to their paint, as the tonalists did. One of William Chadwick's palette cups has dried residues of an oily medium in it. Roger Dennis himself adds a little linseed oil when he paints, and he says that both Childe Hassam and Guy Wiggins added a little oil to their paint to get more gloss; he believes that Willard Metcalf added mastic to his paint. Dennis painted frequently with Charles Ebert (1873–1959) and Frank Bicknell (1866–1943), and he said Ebert was unusual because he did not add any medium, but used paint straight from the tube, while Bicknell used Canada balsam and turpentine. Dennis felt that many of the artists he worked with added medium as they worked because they wanted to avoid applying a varnish later but did not want their paintings to be completely matte. Like painters of all periods, American impressionist painters must have also added medium to their paint to give it the handling properties that they preferred.

A fellow painter wrote that John Twachtman liked to add mastic varnish and turpentine to his paint to help him make the kind of dragging brushstrokes that Twachtman liked (Curran 1910). A painting by Twachtman of his house in Connecticut (My House, 1886–87, Yale University Art Gallery) supports the idea that the artist sometimes added resin to his paint. In several areas, most noticeably in the roof of the portico, he repainted the design using paint with considerable added resinous medium; the reworked areas were more soluble and also may have become somewhat darker. After removal of an old varnish, those areas were noticeably glossier than the surrounding paint. A painting by Frank Benson, in a private collection, also had medium added to certain areas of paint. Some of the upper layers of yellow paint were very easily soluble and appeared to contain large amounts of a soft resin. This paint was difficult to distinguish from a discolored varnish, and in a previous cleaning someone had left old varnish in some areas, while cleaning other areas more thoroughly, giving the painting an uneven, patchy look.

In a painting by Edmund Graecen (Beach Scene at Watch Hill, 1914, Lyman Allyn Art Museum), distinct brushstrokes now look like disfiguring dark stains on the subtle, light-colored design. These areas fluoresce like a natural resin under ultraviolet light. They appear to consist of paint that has discolored, probably because Graecen dipped his brush into a resinous medium when he applied the strokes.


Copyright 1993 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works