AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISM, MATTENESS, AND VARNISHING
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
ABSTRACT—Evidence from written sources—and in some cases from the study and treatment of paintings—indicates that some American Impressionists varnished their paintings, while others preferred matte and/or unvarnished surfaces. It can be difficult to determine a particular painter's varnishing preferences with certainty, but specific information can be found about a number of painters, including Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, John H. Twachtman, Willard Leroy Metcalf, and Theodore Robinson. Topics discussed include the advent of the unvarnished aesthetic in America, varnishing thinly, absorbent grounds, adding media, and unusual media. The ways in which conservators may need to evaluate and interpret the often limited evidence about varnishing preference are discussed in some detail. Also discussed are the consequences of removing varnish and allowing a painting to remain unvarnished. These choices can change the saturation of differently colored areas and alter the relative values of the colors, which can sometimes improve the appearance of a painting to a noticeable degree.
TITRE—Impressionnisme américain, matité et vernissage. RÉSUMÉ—Les sources écrites—et dans certains cas l'étude et le traitement des peintures— révèlent que certains impressionnistes américains vernissaient leurs tableaux, alors que d'autres préféraient des surfaces mattes et/ou non vernies. Il peut être difficile de déterminer avec certitude les préférences d'un peintre en matière de vernis. Cependant, des informations spécifiques peuvent être trouvées sur la pratique d'un certain nombre de peintres dont Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, John H. Twachtman, Willard Leroy Metcalf et Theodore Robinson. Les sujets traités dans cet article incluent l'émergence en Amérique d'une esthétique sans vernis, l'application d'une mince couche de vernis, les préparations absorbantes, l'ajout de médium à peindre et les liants non traditionnels. On y discute aussi en détail des façons dont les restaurateurs peuvent évaluer et interpréter les quelques indices pouvant témoigner des préférences d'un peintre en matière de vernis. Enfin, on y parle des conséquences du dévernissage et du non-vernissage. Ces choix peuvent modifier la saturation de plages de couleurs différentes et en altérer les valeurs, ce qui parfois peut améliorer l'apparence d'une peinture de façon appréciable.
TITULO—El Impresionismo americano, las superficies mates y el barnizado. RESUMEN—La evidencia proporcionada por fuentes escritas—y a veces por el estudio y el tratamiento de cuadros— indica que algunos impresionistas americanos barnizaban sus cuadros, mientras que otros preferían las superficies mate y/o sin barniz. Puede ser difícil determinar con certeza las preferencias de un artista en particular en lo referente al barnizado, pero se puede encontrar información específica sobre algunos pintores, incluyendo Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, John H. Twachtman, Willard Leroy Metcalf y Theodore Robinson. Los temas que se discuten incluyen el advenimiento de la estética de las superficies no barnizadas en los Estados Unidos, el barnizado en capas delgadas, los fondos absorbentes, la adición de ligantes y los ligantes no habituales. Se discute en forma algo detallada las maneras en las cuales los conservadores pueden tener que evaluar e interpretar la evidencia, a menudo limitada, que se encuentra sobre el tema del barnizado. También se discuten las consecuencias de sacar un barniz y dejar que el cuadro quede sin barnizar. Estas opciones pueden cambiar la saturación de diferentes zonas de color y alterar los valores relativos de los colores, lo cual a veces puede mejorar la apariencia de un cuadro hasta un punto que no escapa a la observación.
TÍTULO—Impressionismo americano, opacidade e envernizamento. RESUMO—Evidências provenientes de fontes escritas—e, em alguns casos, de estudo e tratamento de pinturas—indicam que alguns Impressionistas americanos envernizaram suas pinturas, enquanto outros preferiram superfícies opacas e/ou sem verniz. Pode ser difícil estabelecer com certeza as preferências de envernizamento de um determinado pintor, porém podem ser encontradas informações específicas sobre alguns pintores, inclusive Childe Hassam, William Merrit Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, John H. Twachtman, Willard Leroy Metcalf e Theodore Robinson. Os tópicos discutidos incluem o advento da estética sem verniz na América, o envernizamento fino, superfícies absorventes, suportes adicionais e suportes pouco comuns. As maneiras pela quais os conservadores podem precisar avaliar e interpretar a freqüentemente limitada evidência da preferência de envernizamento são discutidas em alguns detalhes. Também são discutidas as conseqüências de se remover o verniz e permitir que uma pintura permaneça sem verniz. Essas escolhas podem mudar a saturação de áreas coloridas e alterar os valores relativos das cores, o que, algumas vezes, pode melhorar visivelmente a aparência de uma pintura.
One of the most important questions that a conservator can ask about a painting is whether the painter preferred a varnished or an unvarnished surface, because varnishing—or not varnishing—can have an enormous effect upon the appearance of a painting. The taste for matte, unvarnished surfaces began with French Impressionist painters, especially Claude Monet (1840–1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) (Swicklick 1993; Callen 1994, 2000). Many of the first generation of Americans who came under the influence of French Impressionism spent time in France and learned about French technique through studio instruction (usually taught by more traditional academic painters), by seeing at firsthand paintings by the more progressive French Impressionists, and in some cases by acquaintance with the French Impressionist painters themselves. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, Americans who remained in the United States also had the opportunity to be influenced directly by French Impressionist technique, because newly painted works by Monet and other French painters were exhibited with increasing frequency in New York, Boston, and other American cities. It is the purpose of this study to attempt to understand to what degree the French preference for nonvarnishing might have been transmitted to American painters.
This research builds upon a study of the techniques of American Impressionist and Tonalist painters published in this journal in 1993 (Mayer and Myers 1993; see also Mayer and Myers 1999). While written documentation about varnishing practice is scarce, information can be gleaned from artists' correspondence and diaries, instruction manuals, artists' supply catalogs, and in rare instances from inscriptions on paintings. The sum of the written evidence, as well as evidence from the examination and treatment of paintings, tends to support the authors' earlier opinion that the techniques used by American Impressionist painters varied widely and that while some American painters preferred an unvarnished surface, other American Impressionists varnished their paintings.
2 MATTENESS AND UNVARNISHED PAINTINGS
Some of the most important written evidence about the preference for unvarnished, matte surfaces comes from an American who was not at all sympathetic toward Impressionism. In the book Art-Talks with Ranger, the Tonalist painter Henry Ward Ranger (1858–1916) was quoted by Ralcy Husted Bell as referring disparagingly to the fashion for what Ranger called “flat” surfaces in imitation of Monet and other French painters:“Following the theory that a ‘flat’ surface gave the effect of more air than a shiny one, there came a desire on the part of some painters to make their pictures look like pastels.” Ranger said that “nearly thirty years” had passed since the fad for matte paintings began, which would put its beginning, according to Ranger, in the 1880s (quoted in Bell 1914, 74).
Another American writer who (like Ranger) disliked Impressionism showed awareness of the practice of nonvarnishing in 1893 in remarks prompted by the exhibition in New York of paintings by the French painters Claude Monet and Paul Albert Besnard (1849–1934) and the Americans J. Alden Weir (1852–1919) and John H. Twachtman (1853–1902). The author claimed that Impressionism was not “great art,” and in support of this view wrote: “I have contended that it is only half an art, and its advocates, unconsciously, corroborate my opinion. ‘These pictures should never be varnished,’ says one” ([Trumble] 1893, 1).
Other written sources confirm the understanding on the part of some Americans that a matte, unvarnished effect might be an option that an artist would choose. An 1898 book by Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst may be the first American instruction book to tell artists that they might elect to not varnish an oil painting. Parkhurst was well acquainted with prominent American Impressionists like Theodore Robinson (1852–1896)—Robinson's diary describes several meetings between Parkhurst and himself (Robinson 1892–96)—and Parkhurst's book is illustrated with reproductions of paintings by Monet and Robinson as well as reproductions of works by earlier and more conservative painters. In the section of the book that deals with adding media to paint, Parkhurst tells painters:
Prefer turpentine to oil, and expect your color to dry rather “dead,” or without gloss, by its use. If you intend to varnish, this is all right. If you do not intend to varnish the picture, keep the color as near the pure tones as you can. The grayer the color, the more the “dead” or “flat” drying will make it look colorless. (Parkhurst 1898, 62)
The New York writer Albert Abendschein, who was not as sympathetic to Impressionism as Parkhurst but whose main interest was in rediscovering the lost secrets of the Old Masters, documented the efforts that some painters made to achieve matte surfaces when he wrote in 1906: “I do not remember ever to have seen a picture of the Masters that led me to believe it had that dead, dull, lackluster, nontransparent look to the surface so much prized by some modern painters, who take special pains to bring it about” (Abendschein 1909, 63).
2.1 ABSORBENT GROUNDS
It has been noted that some French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters used canvases primed with absorbent grounds, and it has also been pointed out that an absorbent ground could contribute to the matteness of an unvarnished painting (Callen 1994; Jirat-Wasiutynski and Newton 1998; Callen 2000). Some American sources document this connection between absorbent grounds and matteness. For example, Ranger, in his discussion of the fad for “flat” surfaces, said of a matte painting by Alexander Wyant (1836–1892) (who was not an Impressionist but a more conservative Tonal landscape painter): “This particular picture was an experiment of Wyant's, which he made one season when he painted on absorbent canvas” (quoted in Bell 1914, 74). Even more to the point, a ca. 1900 catalog published by A. H. Abbott & Co. of Chicago describes “Absorbent Canvas” as follows:“The ‘preparation’ on this canvas is such that pictures in oil on it are dull or ‘flat’ when finished, like so many of the modern French school” (quoted in Katlan 1992, 311).
It should be pointed out, however, that there is not necessarily a connection between absorbent grounds and the intention to achieve a matte surface. Absorbent grounds were available long before the advent of Impressionism. For instance, John Trumbull (1756–1843) specified absorbent grounds when he ordered canvases from Philadelphia and London in 1817 (Trumbull 1817a, 1817b, and 1817c), and Thomas Sully (1783–1872) recorded in his notebook that he used absorbent grounds on various occasions between 1810 and the 1840s (Sully 1809–71). A British instruction book from 1839 and an American instruction book first published in 1879 and reprinted in 1887 say that the principal advantage of an absorbent ground is that it will absorb a portion of the oil and thereby leave the colors more “pure” (Carlyle 2001, 168). The testimony of the American painter William Morris Hunt (1824–1879) and Abendschein's book from 1906 echo this argument (Hunt 1898, 30; Abendschein 1909, 57–60), showing that during the period when Impressionism was being introduced into America, at least some American painters may have seen the primary purpose of an absorbent ground as preventing yellowing by absorbing excess oil rather than producing a matte effect. Other motives may have been operating as well: a contemporary landscape painter told us that he liked to use an absorbent ground mainly because the absorption of part of the oil made his paint dry faster (White 1992).
Evidence about Theodore Robinson's use of absorbent grounds is somewhat equivocal. Robinson mentioned in his diary that he used a white, absorbent canvas for one of his paintings in 1895; this is the only reference to the absorbency of a ground in any of his diary entries, implying that it may have been unusual (Robinson 1892–96, entry for December 17, 1895). Robinson used the French word absorbante for the canvas, although he had been in New York for some time when he wrote this diary entry and most likely bought the absorbent canvas in New York. (Robinson had ordered paints from France six months earlier, but he complained in his diary about the exorbitant duty he had to pay [Robinson 1892–96, entry for June 14, 1895].) Eliot Clark's description of Robinson's technique, written ca. 1918–1920, shows that Clark agreed with earlier writers who believed that one advantage of an absorbent ground was that it preserved the freshness of colors. Clark wrote that Robinson typically painted on a canvas “sufficiently absorbent to draw the superfluous oil … and in consequence the oil, which is accountable for the sallowing of the color, is reduced to an absolute minimum. This was probably not calculated or preconceived on the part of our painter, but it is accountable for the splendid preservation of his pictures.” However, Clark immediately followed this statement with the sentence: “No picture by Robinson should be varnished,” implying that—whatever Robinson's motivation—the leanness of paint caused by the absorbent ground was something that Clark thought should be preserved in the finished painting (Clark 1979, 31–32).
2.2 BLOTTING OUT MEDIA, ADDING MEDIA, AND UNUSUAL MEDIA
French painters were said to have, on occasion, squeezed paint out onto a blotter to absorb some of the oil, a step that would make it more matte (Callen 2000, 101). Ranger was aware of this practice (Bell 1914), but he did not identify any American painter who actually did it, and we have not found any other cases of an American painter taking this step. In fact, there is evidence that a number of American painters added medium to their paint. This is true even of a painter like John Twachtman, who can be documented as having wanted a matte final effect but who was also said to have added mastic varnish to his oil paint (Mayer and Myers 1993). Of course, if added in sufficient quantities, this additional medium could give some gloss to a painting even if the painting remained unvarnished, and experience shows that many unvarnished American Impressionist paintings (including paintings by Twachtman) are not uniformly matte. The consequences of this lack of uniformity are discussed in detail below, in section 4.
Roger Dennis (1902–1997), a painter and conservator who paid a great deal of attention to the media that various artists added to their paints, said in an interview that Charles Ebert (1873–1959) was unusual because Ebert did not add any medium to his paint, but used it straight from the tube. The authors have treated many paintings by Ebert, and they are almost always unvarnished and often quite matte. One painting by Ebert (Snow Scene, 1917, private collection) is particularly interesting because it was painted mainly in oil, but Ebert used a very matte gouache paint for some strokes in the branches of trees and even signed the painting in gouache. An 1887 painting by Childe Hassam (1859–1935) (At the Café, collection of Rhoda and David Chase) appears to have also been done using gouache (and possibly pastel) in addition to oil. Some French painters also combined oil with gouache and other water-soluble media (Callen 2000, 210). In each of these cases, the combination of oil with gouache makes sense only if the paintings were intended to be unvarnished and matte.
The desire for matteness may have been the motivation behind some American painters' use of other unusual media in addition to gouache. A reviewer of the 1886 exhibition of the Water Color Society called William Merritt Chase's (1849–1916) large painting “distemper” but clearly described egg tempera—one of the earliest instances of the use of egg tempera in America (Boyle 2002, 23). In 1914, Frederick Frieseke (1874–1930) said,“I usually make my first notes and impressions with dashes of tempera, then I paint over this with small strokes [of oil] as I have to keep it as pure as possible or the effects of brilliancy will be lost” (quoted in Sellin 2001, 88). Theodore Robinson's diary shows that he was aware that American painters were experimenting with both tempera and wax in the 1890s. Robinson wrote as follows about Robert Blum's (1857–1903) use of tempera:“Very light and brilliant. … He likes much the medium, and is doing it in a very agreeable pastellish way” (Robinson 1892–96, entry for December 16, 1894). Robinson mentions a painting “done in wax” by Charles A. Platt (1861–1933) in 1894; Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938) was also using wax in some of his paintings in the 1890s (Robinson 1892–96, entry for December 19, 1894; Hobbs 1996a, 138, 147n). At least part of the motivation for the use of wax may be inferred from American writer Abendschein's comment that wax added to resin or oil has “the additional advantage of eliminating the glassy surface” (Abendschein 1909, 21).1
3 VARNISHING THINLY
There is some evidence in American artist's manuals that the writers of these treatises were beginning, by the late 19th century, to tell painters for the first time that a thin varnish looked better than a thick varnish. Early and mid-19th-century American sources tend not to comment on the recommended thickness of varnish, or, if they do, it is only to say that two or three thin coats are better than one thick coat—the implication being that a relatively heavy layer of varnish was the desired result, or at least an accepted result.2 By the second half of the 19th century, painters in Europe occasionally expressed a preference for thin varnishes. For example, Edouard Manet (1832–1883) gave instructions for one of his paintings to be varnished “very lightly” in the 1860s (Swicklick 1993, 166), and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) had a similar opinion in favor of thin varnishes as opposed to thick ones in 1881 (Charteris 1927, 55). The Impressionist aesthetic may have augmented this trend, a thin layer of varnish perhaps being seen as a compromise between a thick varnish layer and no varnish at all. Thinner varnish layers might also have been preferred because they would allow textured paint surfaces to remain more visible, in contrast to the smooth, glossy surfaces associated with academic painters. (See, for instance, Swicklick 1993, 161, on Adolphe-William Bouguereau's [1825–1905] use of varnish as an intermediate layer and as a paint additive to achieve his famously smooth surfaces.)
An example of the new preference for thin varnish is found in the 1888 instruction book written by the American Mary Louise McLaughlin, which speaks in excited terms about the “great change” that occurred during the previous decade with the advent of Impressionism. McLaughlin wrote: “A heavy coating of varnish is neither desirable for the artistic effect nor for the preservation of the picture” (McLaughlin 1888, 109).
A decade later, in 1898, the instruction book by Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst (who, as described above, was familiar with and presumably had some sympathy toward both French and American Impressionism) stated that if a painter chose to use varnish, it “should not be flowed on” but should be “as thinly distributed as will serve the purpose” (Parkhurst 1898, 63).
Even Abendschein, the author of the previously cited quotation that criticizes “dead, dull, lackluster” surfaces, goes on to admit that “on the other hand, some of the paintings in our museums and private galleries are heavy with varnish. There is a beautiful medium between both extremes” (Abendschein 1909, 63).
A later source of information is Martin Fischer's book The Permanent Palette, in which a number of artists were interviewed about their techniques. Two painters who were still working in an Impressionistic style in 1930 indicated, in their responses, that they varnished thinly. Wilson Irvine (1869–1936) said that he used “very little” mastic varnish, and Dixie Selden (1871–1935) said that she used mastic varnish “thinned half, or even more, with turpentine” (quoted in Fischer 1930, 93, 95).
The thickness or thinness of a varnish can sometimes make a surprising difference in the appearance of an Impressionist painting. For example, the authors treated a painting by Childe Hassam (Isles of Shoals, 1908, private collection) that had a recently applied, fairly thick layer of varnish (fig. 1). Both owner and conservators felt that a large dark area in the depiction of the surface of the sea looked heavy and out of balance with the rest of the picture. When the recently applied varnish was removed, the dark area was very matte compared to the rest of the picture. Since Hassam varnished at least some of his paintings (see sec. 6.1 below), the painting was revarnished, but with a much thinner coating that allowed some of the differences of gloss in the artist's paint to show more clearly. The result was that the dark area was slightly less saturated and appeared somewhat lighter in value relative to the rest of the painting, which kept the area from looking too dark and too heavy. The Hassam is a fairly unusual case, but in this instance the thinner varnish layer improved the appearance of the painting to a noticeable degree.
Childe Hassam, Isles of Shoals, 1908, oil on canvas, 63.5 × 76.2 cm (25 × 30 in.). Private collection. After treatment
4 VARIATIONS IN GLOSS AND SATURATION ON UNVARNISHED PAINTINGS
An unvarnished painting is not necessarily completely, uniformly matte. Unvarnished American Impressionist paintings vary greatly in gloss one from another, and often a painting will vary in gloss from one area to another within the painting. Unvarnished paintings by French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters also show variations of gloss, both from painting to painting and within an individual painting. For example, paintings by Monet that have never been varnished can sometimes have areas that are quite matte, while other areas of the same painting have a low sheen.
An artist can control the gloss in his or her painting to some degree by choosing an absorbent ground that will absorb medium from the paint and make paint more matte, or by adding medium to the paint as it comes from the tube (as some American Impressionists were said to have done), which would tend to make it more glossy. But some of the variations in gloss within a painting may be accidental, depending upon the amount of oil that was mixed with the pigment in each tube of paint by the paint manufacturer. In unvarnished paintings by Monet, another effect appears to be at work. The more thinly painted areas tend to be more matte, as if the ground drew some of the medium out of the lower paint layers, but in more thickly painted areas, where multiple layers of paint are present, this effect is less pronounced, and these areas tend to be somewhat glossier. If Monet placed a quantity of paint on a blotter to remove excess oil, as eyewitnesses described, this step could also cause variations in saturation because the paint that was closer to the blotter would presumably be more lean.
The variation of gloss from one part of a painting to another is important because each area in a painting may appear lighter or darker in value, or weaker or stronger in intensity of color, depending upon its degree of saturation. Dark areas of paint, especially some dark blues, can appear light in value if they are unsaturated and much darker in value if they are saturated. Gloss and saturation are clearly connected, but differences of value and intensity caused by differences of saturation seem at least as important as issues of gloss or matteness per se.
If parts of a painting are less saturated than other parts—even if this effect is partly accidental—and the painting is then varnished, the relationships in the design may be thrown off because the less-saturated areas will become darker (and perhaps more intense in color) than they were when the artist saw the painting in its unvarnished state on his or her easel. Even a painting having a uniformly unsaturated surface could be affected in unexpected ways by varnishing, because pigments are changed in different ways by increased saturation. As will be shown in the discussion of Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858–1925) below (sec. 6.5), there is evidence that some American painters may have feared the changes in value that would be the result of a painting's being varnished against an artist's wishes. The 1898 comment by Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst cited above (sec. 2) also relates directly to this discussion. Parkhurst wrote that if a painter is intending to not varnish and have a painting remain matte, the painter should use stronger, more “pure” tones than he or she intends, because the matte surface will make the colors look less intense. The converse of this argument is that if an artist intended a painting to be matte, and someone later varnished it against the artist's wishes, some color areas might as a result be made too intense, which is exactly what may occur in some paintings by Theodore Robinson (discussed below in sec. 6.6).
In the past, conservators have sometimes applied a varnish having a matte surface (obtained by spraying or by adding matting agents to the varnish itself) if it was felt that an artist intended a painting to remain unvarnished. A matte surface would give a varnish layer a reflectance somewhat closer to that of an unvarnished paint surface. However, the uniform saturation of the paint by the varnish negates any differences of saturation (and hence variations of value and color intensity) that the artist saw on the easel and could therefore have an adverse effect on the way the parts of a painting relate to one another.
Allowing a painting to remain unvarnished or removing a varnish that had been inappropriately applied can help to reestablish the variations of saturation and gloss that can have such an important effect on the values and colors in different parts of the design and the ways in which those different parts interact to produce the illusion of three-dimensional space. Of course, the decision on the part of a conservator to thin or remove a varnish from an American Impressionist painting must be made on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, the solubilities of the paint or the varnish can make it impossible to reduce a varnish layer to the degree that the artist's variations of gloss become visible without risking damage to the paint. In many cases, however, it is possible to safely thin or remove a varnish and reclaim to some degree its variations of saturation and gloss.
Another complication in this discussion is that a painting's gloss can change over time. This change is difficult to measure precisely, but conservators sometimes observe in paintings whose edges have been covered by a wide frame rabbet that the parts of the painting that have been exposed to light and air are much more matte. Such cases are a caution against prizing matteness too much, because we might be admiring an effect caused by the passage of time rather than something that the artist intended. It must also be admitted that—in theory at least—different parts of a painting might change in gloss over time to different degrees. This type of change could happen, for instance, if various areas of paint were mixed with media that aged differently, such as resins that would degrade faster than oils when exposed to light and air, or if different pigments aged differently over time.
5 INTERPRETING THE EVIDENCE OF VARNISHED AND UNVARNISHED PAINTINGS
The evidence of paintings themselves—whether a painting was never varnished or has an old varnish layer—must be interpreted with great care. Proving intent on the part of an artist can be extremely difficult.
One of the few cases in which we can say with confidence that an artist intended a painting to be varnished is when one sees an artist's retouching on top of a varnish layer. In these rare instances (see the discussions of Hassam and Chase below, and other American Impressionist painters in Mayer and Myers 1993), one can say with certainty, based on the evidence of the painting itself, that a painting had varnish on it while it was in the artist's hands.
The survival of a large number of unvarnished paintings by an artist might suggest that the painter intended them to remain unvarnished. The case of John Steuart Curry (1897–1946) (not an Impressionist painter, but a painter whose techniques are well documented) is an example of how such a supposition could be incorrect. The majority of paintings that remained in the possession of Curry's widow after his death were unvarnished, but a study of letters from Curry to his dealers make it clear that Curry intended that his paintings be varnished, and he left that job to his dealers—to be carried out when paintings were sent to New York for exhibition (Mayer and Myers 2002, 27). Many painters, including Curry, believed that paintings should not be varnished until about a year after they were completed. Hassam's correspondence about his flag paintings (discussed below) shows that Hassam, too, believed that an artist should wait a period of time before varnishing. So when one sees an unvarnished painting, even one that has survived unvarnished until the present day, one must admit the possibility that the artist may have intended that it be varnished in the future, but no one ever got around to it.
It is also important to remember that when one sees a painting that has a varnish layer, even a very old varnish layer, the painting might have been varnished against the artist's wishes by a dealer or owner. One might ask why so many paintings have been varnished in spite of the fact that artists may have not wanted them varnished. Since varnishing was often done by a dealer, framer, or other third party, it might have been done simply as a matter of course, without considering the artist's intent. Because unvarnished paintings would have looked unusual at the time, a dealer might have thought that varnish made a painting look more “normal” and therefore more salable. Another justification for varnishing has been that varnishing has a protective function; Ranger used this argument when he advocated the varnishing of every painting, including paintings by Monet that Ranger knew Monet intended to remain unvarnished (Bell 1914). Another reason that unvarnished paintings might have been varnished is that the increased contrast of values and intensification of colors that occur upon varnishing might have been seen by some as an improvement. A dealer might believe that brighter colors would attract a customer, or a conservator might believe that making a noticeable change in a painting's appearance would justify the cost of treatment. As discussed in connection with Willard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson below, this sort of apparent “improvement” is often at war with the proper relationship of the parts of a painting and the appearance of the painting as a whole.
Painters may also change their practice over the course of their careers, and evidence from one period of an artist's career does not necessarily apply to other periods. Impressionist (and non-Impressionist) painters may also have made decisions about varnishing on a case-by-case basis—varnishing some paintings but not others. Charles Hawthorne (1872–1930) wrote that a dark painting might require varnish while a light-colored one may not (Hawthorne 1938). Other painters can be documented to have had a case-by-case approach to varnishing individual paintings (Mayer and Myers 1993, 135; see Mayer 1998, 27, 29, for examples from earlier periods).
6 VARNISHING PRACTICES OF THE FIRST GENERATION OF AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISTS
It has been possible to compile information about the varnishing practices of several members of the first generation of American painters who came under the influence of French Impressionism. The evidence is sometimes indirect and circumstantial—these were painters who did not talk or write a great deal about technique—and it may not always be possible to make generalizations based upon the limited evidence that is available. Given the caveats discussed above, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and Maria Oakey Dewing (1845–1928) can be documented as having varnished some of their paintings. On the other hand, there is evidence that John Twachtman, Willard Metcalf, and Theodore Robinson preferred unvarnished surfaces on at least some of their paintings. Information about the practices of other American Impressionist painters can be found in Mayer and Myers (1993), and new evidence about the preference for varnish of Dixie Selden and Wilson Irvine, and the nonvarnishing preferences of Charles Ebert, Frederick Frieseke, and Theodore Wendel (1859–1932), is given in the present article.
6.1 CHILDE HASSAM (1859–1935)
A letter from Childe Hassam to his dealer in August 1919, in which the artist says that he will not let his flag paintings go anywhere until he has varnished them all that fall or early winter, is an important document because it offers a very rare instance of an artist expressing his intention about the varnishing of a specific group of paintings (Mayer and Myers 1993).
There is evidence that Hassam wanted at least some of his other paintings to be varnished. A painting dated 1901—Gorge, Appledore (private collection)—was varnished with a medium-thick layer of natural resin varnish, and the artist then completed the painting by applying a number of strokes of paint on top of the varnish layer (fig. 2). The added strokes have the character of artist's paint rather than restorer's paint, outlining and defining rocks and other parts of the landscape in a freely applied manner consistent with the artist's style and technique in the rest of the painting. These strokes prove that the painting had varnish on it while it was still in the artist's hands. Whether or not Hassam actually applied the varnish himself (since varnishing was often done by professional varnishers, from early times until the 20th century), he presumably approved of the fact that the painting was varnished when he applied his final strokes of paint. In fact, the artist's retouching has a considerable amount of varnish mixed in with the paint, so the gloss of the retouching would harmonize with the varnished surface.
Childe Hassam, Gorge, Appledore, 1901, oil on canvas, 63.5 × 76.2 cm (25 × 30 in.). Private collection. After treatment
6.2 WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE (1849–1916)
The egg tempera painting by Chase described above (sec. 2.2) that was called distemper in 1886 should probably be considered as a separate case from Chase's oil paintings, since it was exhibited at the Water Color Society.
Although Chase never converted completely to an Impressionist style, the park scenes that he painted in New York during the 1880s are considered some of the first Impressionist paintings done on American soil. One of these paintings, Lilliputian Boats in the Park (ca. 1888, private collection), has extensive reworking by the artist, including major changes to the principal figure and the painting out of a subsidiary figure. As in the case of the painting by Hassam described above, it is clear that the artist did his retouching on top of a layer of varnish. Old photographs show the painting in its previous state, before the alterations were made. If there was any question about whether the changes were made by the artist or by a later hand, an old installation photograph from the Chase memorial exhibition in 1917 shows the painting in its second (final) state.
The natural resin varnish on Lilliputian Boats in the Park could be characterized as being of medium thickness. Another painting by Chase, The Old Road, a sketchy scene on panel done on Shinnecock, Long Island, in Chase's most Impressionistic manner, probably during the 1890s (private collection), had an old, very thin varnish layer. The Old Road appears to have never been treated by a conservator, and the thin layer of natural resin found under a heavy accumulation of grime must have been applied early in the painting's history, although (given the caveats discussed above in sec. 4) it is impossible to determine whether or not the varnish was actually applied by Chase or under Chase's supervision.
6.3 THOMAS WILMER DEWING (1851–1938)
Thomas Dewing was a member of “The Ten,” the group of American painters who were among the first to come under the spell of Impressionism, although Dewing developed a unique style that was less overtly influenced by the technique of Monet or other French painters than many other members of The Ten. Thomas Dewing can be documented as having varnished one of his paintings—The Mirror (1916, private collection)—at the home of its owner, probably 4 to 10 years after the painting was completed (Hobbs 1996b). This evidence is yet another reminder that many artists believed a period of time should elapse before a new painting was varnished. It is also a reminder that artists knew that parts of a painting could gradually “sink in” or become more matte over a period of years, and this alteration could make varnishing (or the application of additional varnish) necessary at a later time.
A letter from Maria Oakey Dewing (1845–1928), Thomas Dewing's wife, underscores the point that dealers sometimes had paintings varnished at the request of an artist if and when it was felt that the painting needed it. Maria Oakey Dewing was a painter who collaborated with her husband on a number of projects. She once wrote to her dealer that a potential customer had admired one of her paintings when it was on display in the gallery but told her: “It looked charming but wanted varnish. He begged me to varnish it. Could you do this for me if you are not too busy?” (Dewing n.d.).
6.4 JOHN H. TWACHTMAN (1853–1902)
John Twachtman is the best-documented of the American Impressionists in terms of his varnishing preferences. Twachtman began his studies in Munich with Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), who liked medium-rich paint and glossy surfaces (Mayer and Myers 1993). However, Eliot Clark, who knew Twachtman, wrote that beginning about 1890 Twachtmen “deliberately avoided an unctuous, varnishlike effect and would frequently expose his pictures to sun and rain to relieve the pigment of superfluous oil and thus produce a uniform mat or dry surface” (Clark 1979, xx). Twacht-man's son confirmed the story of his father leaving paintings out in the sun and rain, although it is difficult to believe that his paintings would have survived if they were actually allowed to get wet outdoors (see further discussion in Mayer and Myers 1993, 136–37). Many paintings by Twachtman remain unvarnished, and many of them are fairly matte, although paintings by Twacht-man sometimes have glossier passages as well, perhaps attributable to the mastic varnish that the artist was said to have added to his paint.
6.5 WILLARD LEROY METCALF (1858–1925)
Many paintings by Willard Metcalf have remained unvarnished, but four recently discovered inscriptions on paintings by Metcalf give much more specific evidence about his objections to varnishing.
The dealer John Hagan found an inscription on the reverse of the painting A Summer's Night (1917–18, private collection), which reads, in the artist's hand: “DO NOT VARNISH / W L M” (fig. 3). This is the first case that we knew of in which an American Impressionist did the same as Camille Pissarro when he wrote on the back of a painting at the Musée d'Orsay: “Please do not varnish this picture” (Bomford et al. 1990, 101; Callen 2000, 210).
Another inscription makes Metcalf's intentions even more clear. On the back of The Enveloping Mantle (1920, private collection), Barbara MacAdam, curator at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, found an inscription by the artist that reads: “Do not Varnish (at any time)/W. L. M.” (fig. 4). With this inscription, Metcalf is making it absolutely clear that he does not want it varnished at any time; he does not mean, for instance, that it should dry for a year and then it could be varnished.
This sentiment is echoed in a third inscription found by conservator Thomas Branchick on the reverse of Hauling Wood (February) (1920, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy) which adds a prohibition against applying medium as well as varnish:“Do not VARNISH—or at any / time apply any medium / W.L.M.”
In a fourth example, Benediction (1920, private collection), the authors found an inscription on the back of the original paneled stretcher in which Metcalf explains his feelings in even more detail (figs. 5, 6). He wrote: “NOTICE!! / UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES / should VARNISH or other
Inscription byWillard Metcalf on the reverse of his painting A Summer's Night, 1917–1918, oil on canvas. Private collection. Photograph courtesy of John Hagan
Inscription by Willard Metcalf on the reverse of his painting The Enveloping Mantle, 1920, oil on canvas. Private collection. Photograph courtesy of Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
mediums / be applied to this canvas—as they will / change certain ‘values’—and thereby / ruin it. / W. L. M.” This inscription is especially important because it proves that Metcalf's rationale for avoiding varnish was not simply fear of the changes that a yellow varnish would make over time or simply liking a matte surface for its own sake.
When Metcalf refers to “values”—which he put in quotation marks, as if he knew it had a specific meaning that he was not sure others would understand—he is most likely using the term in the sense of the relative lightness or darkness of parts of a painting. Benediction is a dark evening scene, and on a dark painting, the ways in which different areas might be saturated by varnish can make a very noticeable difference in the values of the dark colors. (Of the three other Metcalf paintings that bear inscriptions, A Summer's Night is also a night scene; Hauling Wood (February) and The Enveloping Mantle are snow scenes that are mostly light in value, but they are similar to the other two paintings in that much of their effect depends upon subtle differences within a limited range of values.) On a dark painting, the reflections from a glossy varnish could also interfere with the reading of the design, but Metcalf's wording makes it seem less likely that his concern was with reflections.
Bruce Chambers, who is working on a catalogue raisonné of Metcalf's works, reported that he knows of no inscriptions about varnishing on any other Metcalf paintings, although other inscriptions may possibly exist but have simply not been noted (Chambers 2002). This point raises the question: why are there inscriptions on only four paintings? It is possible that the artist had a strong opinion against varnishing these paintings in particular, since they have a narrow range of values. However, the sequence of the inscriptions, in which the rhetoric heated up between 1917–18 and 1920, could point toward another scenario in which the artist may have been annoyed by a specific case or cases of paintings having been varnished against his wishes and felt that he needed to use ever stronger language to try to get his wishes carried out.
Metcalf's fears about changes in value on Bene-diction also relate directly to the printed labels that were applied by Esther L. Pissarro to paintings by members of the Pissarro family, in which Lucien Pissarro (1863–1944) and Camille Pissarro were said to have worried that if their paintings were varnished against their wishes,“the values were all changed and the picture spoilt—the harm increasing as the varnish darkened” (label illustrated in Callen 2000, 210).
6.6 THEODORE ROBINSON (1852–1896)
Theodore Robinson had a more direct link to French Impressionism than most of the other Americans. During the years that he spent in Giverny he developed a close relationship with Monet (made possible because Robinson spoke French), and he continued to exchange letters with Monet after returning to America.
Robinson's unpublished diaries (Robinson 1892–96) give a tantalizing glimpse into the working methods of an American disciple of Monet, although the evidence they provide about varnishing practice is in most cases indirect. In fact, Robinson is an interesting case study of the ways in which documentary evidence can be sifted, interpreted, and combined with other evidence gained from the treatment of paintings to allow conservators to come to some conclusions about Robinson's preferences about varnishing.
Willard Metcalf, Benediction, 1920, oil on canvas, 99 × 91.5 cm (39 × 36 in.). Private collection. After treatment
Robinson offered opinions about the appearance of Monet's paintings on several occasions. For instance, in 1895 Robinson reported that another man (“Roland”) thought some of Monet's cathedral series “annoying from the amount of pigment, crummy, dry.” Robinson added:“I have felt the same myself, in some of [Monet's] later work.” On a later occasion Robinson amplified upon his conflicting opinions about Monet's cathedrals:“They are bewil-dering at first, but the more one looks, the more of beauty and charm is disclosed; but the painting is so novel that it shocks even the faithful … And I always have found it hard to like the painting, never so sincere and successful as it may be, that is crummy and like masonry … But one gets to like and appreciate the later, wrought-out, elaborate visions” (Robinson 1892–96, entries for December 8, 1895, March 10, 1896). The unusual thickness and “crummy” character of Monet's paint (having a bumpy texture, like crumbs?), more than its matte-ness, seemed to have been the initial obstacle to Robinson's liking Monet's cathedrals. Robinson himself tended to apply his paint much more thinly.
In terms of his own painting technique, although Robinson writes about his paintings and his painting process in some detail in his diaries, he never once mentions varnishing any of his paintings (or having them varnished by others). This lack of mention could be seen as a kind of negative evidence. The diaries also make it clear that Robinson was very close to Twachtman and saw him often when he was back in America, probably as often as he saw any other painter. This close association with an American artist who wanted his paintings to be matte is yet another indicator that Robinson could have been influenced by these ideas in his own practice.
The diaries demonstrate that Robinson was also closely associated with the painter Theodore Wendel and exhibited with him on several occasions. Wendel's oil paintings were described in a contemporary news-paper account as having “the dry quality of pastels” and on another occasion were described as looking so much like pastels that “it is difficult to distinguish the work in one medium from that in another” (cited in Meixner 1982, 130, 150). A curious story about Wendel told by R. H. Ives Gammell gives additional testimony—in a roundabout way—that Wendel may have intended his paintings to remain unvarnished. Gammell wrote that a restorer “who had varnished many of [Wendel's] paintings” reported that a blue pigment used by Wendel had unfortunately darkened, “therefore damaging the values of blue sky or blue water in some otherwise masterly pictures” (Gammell 1986, 152, 164n). Gammell interpreted the darkening as having been caused by the deterioration of the pigment over time. However, one cannot help but wonder whether the two topics that are juxtaposed in Gammell's text— varnishing by a restorer, and the darkening of certain colors—are connected, and the latter may have been caused by the former. In fact, the appearance of many blue pigments can change dramatically depending upon their degree of saturation, and it is likely that if a painting by Wendel was originally as matte as a pastel, and it was then varnished, some noticeable darkening—or change in “values” as Gammell described it— of the blue areas would occur.
Inscription by Willard Metcalf on the reverse of his painting Benediction, 1920. Private collection
Robinson once reported in his diary that a New York art critic, writing about the Society of American Artists exhibition in 1896,“refers to the ‘adobe painters’ I suppose in allusion to chalky, dry painting” (Robinson 1892–96, entry for March 26, 1896). The exhibition included paintings by most of the leading American Impressionists as well as some more conservative painters. The exhibition catalog shows that Robinson was among the best represented artists that year, having five paintings on exhibit, while Metcalf had six, Hassam four, and Twachtman two ([Society of American Artists] 1896). Robinson, unfortunately, did not go on to tell us what he himself thought about “chalky, dry painting” on this occasion.
In terms of secondary sources that discuss Robinson's technique, Eliot Clark's 1979 book on Robinson contains the statement, “No picture by Robinson should be varnished” (Clark 1979, 32). Although the book was published in 1979, Clark had actually written the manuscript in 1918–20, much closer to Robinson's lifetime. Eliot Clark was too young to have known Robinson before the artist's death in 1896, but he interviewed people who knew him, and Clark was a painter himself as well as our primary source for the information that Twachtman wanted his paintings to be matte, so his opinion carries some weight.
A number of paintings by Robinson have never been varnished. When paintings that have been varnished are compared to those that have remained unvarnished, the varnished paintings often show dark strokes of paint that look like they are too dark and do not fit in with the way that the space works in the rest of the picture. This appearance can lead one to suspect that Robinson's paintings suffer from changes in values when they are varnished, exactly as Metcalf had predicted in the long, admonishing inscription on the reverse of Metcalf's painting Benediction.
For instance, Robinson's painting Seaside Village (n.d., private collection) was coated with what appeared to be a later varnish when it came to the authors for treatment. In its varnished state, the very dark green and reddish brown strokes in the tree and on the hillside seemed obtrusive, and the space did not work very well (fig. 7). When the varnish was removed, and the darkest strokes became less saturated and consequently more matte, these strokes became lighter in value. In their unvarnished state, the strokes appeared to fit better with the colors and values in the rest of the picture, and when these strokes become less prominent, the recession of space works more logically, especially on the hillside (fig. 8). In another painting, The Little Bridge (n.d., private collection), removing a later varnish made a subtle but noticeable improvement in the appearance of the face of a woman by reducing the contrast between the dark spots of paint that defined her features and the rest of her face, consequently making her facial expression less cartoonlike.
The authors have at this point removed varnishes from six paintings by Robinson, often finding that varnish removal makes an improvement in the way that the space in the painting works and keeps individual dark strokes from being too prominent. In none of these paintings was the surface completely matte after varnish removal. The gloss varied from area to area, but it often happens that Robinson's darkest strokes are among the most matte, and it is in these cases that one sees the most dramatic change upon varnish removal. Of course, there is no guarantee that the recovered variations of matteness and gloss are exactly those that were visible when the painting was new. But at least in the case of Robinson, the variations of gloss and consequent changes in value and intensity make visual sense. Removing varnishes from these paintings also brings to mind Parkhurst's comment about the change in color intensity that occurs upon varnishing (see sec. 2 above), especially Seaside Village, where strong red and green strokes were among the discordant notes that seemed diminished by varnish removal. Fortunately, in all of these cases, the authors found that the solubilities of the paint and varnish allowed cleaning to be carried out to a degree that variations in gloss were made apparent, a process that might not be possible with some paintings.
If we return once more to written evidence to help interpret the evidence of the paintings themselves, the overwhelming testimony of Robinson's diary is that—in spite of Robinson's qualms about the “crummy” paint application in Monet's cathedral series—he admired Monet more than any other artist and hung on every word of Monet's advice. Robinson himself often compared his work unfavorably to Monet's. He wrote about Monet's paintings vis-à-vis his own: “They are so vibrant and full of things, yet at a little distance, broad tranquil masses are all one sees. They are not spotty or unquiet” (Robinson 1892–96, entry for May 10, 1893). It seems difficult to believe that Robinson would not have carried his admiration of Monet to the point of emulating the unvarnished appearance of Monet's paintings as well. And if we consider the appearance of some of Robinson's paintings—before and after varnish removal—it may not be too much of a stretch to imagine that the paintings, after their varnishes have been removed, look more like what Robinson admired in Monet: less “spotty” and “unquiet.”
It is difficult to draw conclusions about this topic because information is so sparse and the discovery of new evidence in the future may change the conclusions that we have come to at this time. However, a few generalizations can be made.
- Although Americans could have known by the 1890s (or earlier) that matteness in the French manner was an option that they might choose, it is
Theodore Robinson, Seaside Village, n.d., oil on canvas, 45.4 × 45.8 cm (17 7/8 × 18 in.). Private collection. Before removal of varnish
Fig. 7, after removal of varnish clear that some American Impressionists varnished at least some of their paintings while others preferred their paintings to remain unvarnished.
- By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thinner varnish layers seem to have become more fashionable among American painters, probably under the influence of Impressionism.
- It is often difficult to find conclusive evidence about the varnishing practice of a particular painter. However, the example of Theodore Robinson shows that a careful reading of written documents can lead to a great deal of circumstantial evidence that can point conservators toward a better understanding of an artist's intentions.
- The treatment of paintings by Theodore Robinson also demonstrates that removing a varnish from a painting and allowing it to remain unvarnished can improve its appearance a great deal. This effect is very different from the uniform saturation of a matte varnish but rather is the result of allowing different parts of the painting to have different degrees of saturation, in this way affecting the value and intensity of the colors in those areas.
- There is an element of subjectivity in the decisions that conservators make about varnishing (or not varnishing) paintings, but the authors would argue that these sorts of subjective judgments, based above all on a painting's appearance, are a necessary and important part of any decision-making process.
1. American painters may have been following the lead of the French in some of these experiments with wax. A New York newspaper reported in 1891, “The members of the French Society of Artists are pondering upon a proposed abandonment of oil colors and brushes in favor of some more permanent mediums,” and that a committee was investigating encaustic among other techniques (quoted in Abendschein 1909, 2; see also Rice 1999 on wax painting in 19th-century France and on the use of wax by the American John La Farge [1836–1910] beginning in the 1860s).
2. For example, John Neagle wrote ca. 1839: “Perhaps two or three very thin coats of varnish may prove safer than one thick one” (Neagle 1839 and later, 3; the entry is from the very beginning of the book and probably dates from very close to 1839). An American Artist [Osborn] (1845 [and later editions up to 1883], 286) said:“Put the couch on thin; for you can always add another lay, when the first is thoroughly dry.” And Rembrandt Peale (xxx–xxxx) wrote:“It is best to give a picture two coats of [varnish], letting the first be well dry—rather than one thick one” (Peale ca. 1849–52, 95).
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The authors would like to thank Edward Shein of American Art Search, Thomas Barwick, John Driscoll of Babcock Galleries, John Hagan, and Frederick W. Lapham III. We would also like to thank Jack Becker, formerly of the Florence Griswold Museum and now at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art, Thomas J. Branchick of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, Bruce Chambers, Susan Hobbs, Barbara J. MacAdam of the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, and Dorothy Mahon of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
LANCE MAYER and GAY MYERS are both graduates of the conservation training program at the Intermuseum Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio. Since 1981 they have been in New London, Connecticut, where they spend the majority of their time working as independent conservators for many large and small museums as well as private collectors. In 1999 they were awarded a Winterthur Advanced Research Fellowship to study American painters' techniques. In 2003 they were guest scholars at the Getty Research Institute. Address: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London, Conn. 06320