The Finishing Touch:
The exhibition is generously sponsored by The Starr Foundation.
The Finishing Touch explores the controversy surrounding the varnishing practices of early 20th century artists. Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, independent painting conservators affiliated with the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, are guest curators for the exhibition. The team has worked for museums across the country as well as for private collectors. Using works from the Florence Griswold Museum’s collection, which they have recently conserved, they explain the differing attitudes of Tonalist and Impressionist painters about the use of varnish to enhance and protect artwork—opinions key to understanding these rival artistic movements. This debate still concerns conservators and art historians, as the varnishing process not only affects the appearance of paintings but also alters them over time. Notably, many works were varnished against the wishes of their maker, presenting those responsible for their care today with difficult choices. Some of the paintings in this focused exhibition have recently undergone conservation treatment with the goal of presenting them – in some cases, for the first time in many years – in a state much closer to that originally envisioned by their creators.
To Varnish or Not to Varnish
Tonalist painters like Henry Ward Ranger, considered the founder of the Lyme Art Colony, and Louis Paul Dessar were greatly influenced by their admiration of the Old Masters. They used glazes and varnish to imitate the golden tone of those paintings, which was often caused by old varnish layers that had darkened. Paintings like Dessar’s The Wood Chopper led Impressionists to jokingly label Tonalists the “baked apple” or “brown gravy” school.
By the 1880s, some American painters began to take inspiration from the French Impressionists, who were then leading the European avant-garde. While Tonalists believed that the passage of time would improvetheir paintings, Impressionists feared that the discoloration of varnish over time might dim the brightness and clarity of their colors. To prevent this kind of change, American Impressionists such as Willard Metcalf, John Henry Twachtman, and Theodore Robinson avoided excess oil or varnish in their paints, and some followed the practice of Monet and Camille Pissarro in not varnishing their paintings after they were completed. The resulting paintings seemed shockingly colorful and surprisingly matte and pastel-like to viewers unaccustomed to this new aesthetic. “Some Americans embraced the matte aesthetic by squeezing their oil paint out onto blotters to absorb excess oil. Others painted on absorbent canvases, which were advertised as making paintings ‘dull or “flat”…like so many of the modern French school,” said Lance Mayer.
Against Their Wishes
Despite many Impressionists’ strong feelings against its use (Willard Metcalf even wrote “do not varnish” on the backs of some of his canvases), varnish was often added to a work after it left their hands. On one occasion, Ranger tried to convince a Boston collector to have all of his paintings by Monet coated with varnish, citing as a precedent the fact that the dealer Joseph Durand-Ruel had varnished paintings by Monet. Durand-Ruel’s actions are now remembered as a notorious example of insensitivity to an artist’s wishes. “For a century, American Impressionists’ preferences about the appearance of their paintings have been overlooked. Lance Mayer and Gay Myers have broken new ground in their research into artists’ intent. By examining paintings as well as artists’ diaries, letters, supply catalogues, and instruction manuals, they have recovered vital information about how these painters wanted their works to be seen,” said Amy Kurtz Lansing, Florence Griswold Museum Curator. “Their study, which will be the subject of a forthcoming book, describes one of the most exciting directions in art conservation today.”
Using Lilian Westcott Hale’s Woman Resting, Mayer and Myers demonstrate how varnish, applied in recent decades, made a subtle but definite change from the effect that the artist may have intended. A photograph indicates where the varnish has been partially removed so that visitors can compare for themselves the difference in appearance.
A selection of original artists’ materials from the Museum’s William Chadwick Studio and models of painting supports will teach visitors about how Tonalists and Impressionists created their artworks. Mayer and Myers also take viewers behind the scenes with an introduction to the work of conservators. Gay Myers said, “In this exhibition, we’re trying to do something that has rarely been attempted—to help a visitor connect the physical materials of a painting with the complex and subtle impressions made on a viewer standing in front of a work of art.”
Special Events and Programming
Painting Conservators in Conversation
Join Mayer and Myers as they preview The Finishing Touch,the new exhibition they guest curated for the Florence Griswold Museum. Their painting conservation expertise and first-hand knowledge of the objects in the exhibition affords them special insight into the differences in painting techniques, varnishing practices, and aesthetic preferences between the Tonalists and Impressionists.
Crisscrossing the Atlantic: French & American Impressionist Painting Techniques
The painting techniques of French and American Impressionists have sometimes been called simple and straightforward. But a study of written sources, and the experience gained by having treated many paintings by these artists, have led conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers to discover elements of complexity and fascinating differences between French and American painters. The conservators also show how painters' techniques not only affect the appearance of their paintings, but have a bearing on how conservators approach the cleaning and treatment of works by artists such as Claude Monet, Childe Hassam, and Theodore Robinson.
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