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Conserving Gilbert Stuart's masterful portraits

26th July 2012

It has just been announced that a total of 16 paintings of federal-era luminaries from the National Gallery of Art in Washington are to undergo vital conservation work to ensure they continue to be an important part of American culture, with work already in progress.

These paintings were executed by Gilbert Stuart, who is known as the "Father of American Portraiture", living as he did among some of the most important dignitaries during the early years of the free and independent America.

"He demonstrated an astute ability to capture not only the physical appearance of his sitters but their spirit and intellect as well," the gallery added. "No artist provides a more complete or more vivid visual record of the men and women of the early republic."

Though well-respected and renowned for his composed, accurate and gracious paintings of important and powerful Americans, of which he produced over 1,000, Stuart is most famous for never finishing what would have been his greatest portrait of George Washington.

Known as The Athenaeum, it is nevertheless celebrated as a breathtaking portrait, capturing Washington's countenance with deft expertise, all at once human while exalted. In an unfinished work, that is certainly an outstanding achievement of one of America's most important politicians and thinkers.

The venture has been made possible by the Bank of America Conservation Project, which exists to support the continuation of arts across the world. This year alone a total of 20 similar schemes are taking place in 15 countries.

"The conservation work to date has resulted in major improvements in the appearance of the paintings and has greatly increased the stability of the paint layers," said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art.

"A wonderful group of historically significant portraits will soon be available for exhibition. We are extremely grateful to Bank of America, a long-time supporter of the gallery, for helping to preserve these American masterworks."

Once complete, the restoration project will see works restored to their original aesthetic, presenting viewers with more accurate versions than the ones they have become accustomed to.

Passed down through generations of Americans, some the descendants of subjects, the paintings have endured years of heavy handling, natural corrosion and inaccurate retouching, while also developing structural setbacks like cracks in the paint.

An experienced team of professionals has been assembled, headed by the gallery's conservation department, including notable experts like Lance Mayer, Gay Myers and Joanna Dunn. They have already begun work on scrutinising deficiencies, coming up with suitable strategies, cleaning the paintings and restoring the visual integrity of the works.

In removing what is fundamentally a tarnished protective varnish coating, the team is able to better see the true colours as originally conceived by Stuart. The varnish, which has yellowed in time, hasn't so much devalued the paintings' pleasant physicality, but distorted it, unintentionally that is. It's proving to be a fascinating exercise and rather revelatory.

"What's emerged now that time's varnish is gone is everything we knew to be true and more," Nancy Anderson, a curator of American and British painting, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "You get to see the virtuoso technique because nothing's obscuring it anymore."

Stuart was born in Saunderstown in Rhode Island in 1755. Growing up, he showed a natural talent as a painter, which was first nurtured by an itinerant Scottish painter. This precipitated a move to London, where he really began to get to grips with what would become his trade. He also spent some time in Dublin before returning to America in 1793, equipped with confidence and mastery over his discipline.

He was intent on painting Washington, a feat he achieved when the president, on the recommendation of supreme court chief justice John Jay, decided to sit for Stuart. The artist managed to produce three portraits during this sitting, bringing into being the most recognisable image of Washington today: a bold, statesmanlike figure that radiated greatness.

Stuart died in 1828 at the age of 72, impoverished, having squandered his fortunes on an extravagant lifestyle, which was further diminished by his incompetence when it came to business. Regardless, his legacy remained intact and he remains one of America's greatest ever portrait painters.

"Speaking generally, no penance is like having one's picture done," remarked John Adams, the second president of the United States.

"You must sit in a constrained and unnatural position, which is a trial to the temper. But I should like to sit to Stuart from the first of January to the last of December, for he lets me do just what I please, and keeps me constantly amused by his conversation."

Cadogan Tate is a leader in fine art storage and shipping services, represented by expert art handlers.

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