OLD MASTER RECIPES IN THE 1920s, 1930s, AND 1940s: CURRY, MARSH, DOERNER, AND MAROGER
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
The period between the two world wars was a critical time for American painters, many of whom attempted to absorb lessons from Europe while at the same time making art that was distinctively American. One aspect of this struggle, which is of particular interest to conservators, was a resurgence of interest in the “secrets” of European Old Masters. This development led to a revival of tempera painting and experiments with “mixed” techniques that often combined underlayers of egg-oil emulsions with resinous glazes. The revival of historic painting techniques in America was greatly influenced by the theories and writings of European experts, especially Max Doerner (1870–1939) and Jacques Maroger (1884–1962). An important motive for many American painters at this time was concern for the permanence of their paintings. Many artists hoped to find increased permanence by studying the techniques of previous centuries, but this objective also led them into dialogues with manufacturers of artist's materials, and in some cases led them to carry out experiments with new, modern materials in addition to the allegedly rediscovered secrets of the past.
John Steuart Curry (1897–1946) and Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) epitomize these trends. Curry and Marsh each left behind enormous amounts of material that amplify our understanding of the techniques of the period, including notebooks describing their experiments using recipes from Doerner and Maroger and detailed descriptions of the methods used to construct individual paintings. Curry and Marsh exchanged letters in which they discussed technical issues in great detail, they corresponded with color manufacturers and other painters, and Curry made sample canvases to test the aging of various paints and media. Two other important sources of information were Kathleen Curry and William McCloy. Kathleen Curry (1899–2001), John Steuart Curry's widow, preserved and made her husband's papers available to scholars and gave the authors the opportunity to examine and treat a number of Curry's paintings that had never before been treated by conservators. The authors also interviewed William McCloy (1913–2000), a painter with a strong interest in technical matters in his own right, who was Curry's studio assistant during the 1940s. McCloy participated in many of Curry's technical experiments at that time and acted as secretary in the extensive technical correspondence between Curry and Marsh, which will be discussed in more detail below.
These sources have allowed the authors to construct unusually detailed technical histories for both Curry and Marsh and to study how various materials and techniques have affected the preservation and appearance of paintings today. This information not only should be of interest to conservators treating works by these two artists but also can provide insights into materials and methods used by many other painters during these important decades when so many different ideas were flourishing.