FROM THE GROUND UP: THE GROUND IN 19TH-CENTURY AMERICAN PICTURES
The materials and the color of the ground have a significant impact on the stability, tonality, and quality of the finished work of art. For the 19th-century American artists who became students of light and translucent media, the color of the ground became even more critical.
Experimentation in the 19th century by artists' colormen precipitated problems with faulty ground layers. Changing recipes led to the use of primed canvases that developed unsightly stains, which eventually disfigured the paint film. To achieve certain visual effects, highly absorbent, highly water-soluble grounds were commonly used. Because these grounds are hidden by the layers above, the potential for disaster is latent.
In treating 19th-century American pictures, there is a need to think about the varnish, the glazes, the upper paint films, the resinous interlayers, and, certainly not least of all, the ground. Methods of approach must include testing for hidden components.
Care must be taken to determine whether one is looking at broken scumbles or the vestiges of bloom that have migrated through the structure to be deposited on the surface, making the artist's original intent difficult to decipher. Hazy, atmospheric effects are part of the vocabulary of many of these pictures.
Many of the painters of the Hudson River School purchased materials from a group of vendors near the Tenth Street Studio Building. At the same time that colormen were experimenting with ground recipes, the artists were modifying European techniques to produce the American idea of landscape and American light. Grounds were changed in color and type based on aesthetic needs and permanence. Ground staining and water-soluble grounds were not unique to any particular artist of the period. They did, however, mark paintings and produce problems and challenges. Understanding the milieu and the materials and structure will help art historians, conservators, curators, and conservation scientists to meet the challenges of treating these pictures.
This article would not have been written without the encouragement of Ross Merrill. I am also deeply indebted to Steve Kornhauser, Sandra Webber, Marcia Steele, and Rita Albertson for providing visual examples of ground staining. Invaluable advice was offered by Christopher Tahk, Nathan Stolow, Dare Hartwell, Deborah Trupin, Jim Wright, Leslie Carlyle, and Audrey Nieson.