AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISM, MATTENESS, AND VARNISHING
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
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.