Encounters with two paintings and a conservator

The first thing I used to think of when I heard the word tempera was that powdered paint we used in elementary school.
Of course I didn’t know then that tempera (paint using a binder of protein such as egg or milk) can be traced back to ancient Egyptian culture, or that it was the predominant painting medium until roughly the 16th century when oil paint was introduced. (Leonardo DaVinci’s mural “The Last Supper” is tempera.) But what has caught my attention, as an employee of the Swope Art Museum, is the unusual number of tempera paintings dating from the 1930s and 40s. Visitors to the Swope can see three tempera paintings currently hanging in the 1930’s -40’s gallery by Thomas Hart Benton, Zoltan Sepeshy and Reginald Marsh. It turns out that that era in U.S. history saw a renewed interest in a number of artistic mediums and techniques including tempera.
American Scene Painters and Regionalists, in particular, seemed to take to the medium. Perhaps it was spurred on by the concurrent proliferation of public murals and an interest in the history of the mural form. Thomas Hart Benton, for instance, while a student in France, studied Renaissance paintings. Though oil had supplanted tempera as a favored medium, artists during the Renaissance continued to use tempera for large murals. While in France, Benton also crossed paths with the Mexican artist Diego Rivera who used the medium for his famous murals.
Zoltan Sepeshy was so enthusiastic about the medium that he even wrote an instructional book about it. The book, Tempera Painting (1946, Holme Press, NY,) is quite readable. Sepeshy serves up a good foundation of technical information with a dollop of humor. And for the do-it-yourself type, he included recipes for home made mediums.
A comparison of the paintings by Benton and Sepeshy reveals very different techniques and approaches. Sepeshy wrote that he never mixed white with his colors nor did he mix his colors together. Instead he exploited the translucency of the pure colors using a complicated web of what he terms vertical and horizontal layering. For vertical layering, for instance, a wide swath of translucent blue layered over a swath of red gives you purple. To layer horizontally, according to Sepeshy, the artist juxtaposes a line of blue next to a line of red and the eyes of the viewer mixes the purple–a similar technique to that of the French impressionists. As I look at Spring Flowers by Sepeshy, though, I do not see any impressionistic color juxtapositions, or as Sepeshy would say horizontal layering, what I see is the cross hatching but in analogous hues.
Sepeshy wrote that he used fifteen to twenty-five pure colors in a single painting. If there is white or light in a painting by Sepeshy it radiates from the bottom layer of white primer. To create this glowing effect presents quite a challenge of logistics; the artist must keep the white intact while modeling an image layer upon layer. Sepeshy says on page 16 of his book: “The objective must always be in sight in this tempera technique, and with each layer of color that the painter applies, he must know its function in relation to all subsequent layers. Mistakes cannot be covered with a brush stroke; they must be scraped off with steel wool down to the board itself. Even then, there is danger of marring the whiteness and smoothness of the board, so it is best just not to make mistakes.”
On page 46 Sepeshy comments on his technique to the would-be tempera painter: “Here is a warning. The road to which I point is a hard and tortuous one. Many good works in water color, or even oil, may be matters of minutes, or hours, or days. When you begin a tempera painting, you must be prepared to work on it for weeks. You must be prepared for days of planning, for numberless fine brush strokes, for patient attention to detail, for eye burning and seat callousing hour upon hour.”
In contrast Benton’s use of tempera, in Threshing Wheat, is only as an under painting over which oil was used for the more detailed work on the surface. Benton’s colors have been mixed with white and the pallet is primarily opaque. The handling of the paint in Benton’s painting is quite different from Sepeshy’s combination of washes and cross hatches. His technique looks more like painting whereas Sepeshy’s looks a lot like drawing. Though Benton’s painting Threshing Wheat has many tiny brush strokes they seem more in the service of rendering detail and texture than in building up shapes or mixing colors. Yet on close inspection some passages of Threshing Wheat have more impressionistic or horizontal color juxtapositions (in miniature scale) than the Sepeshy painting Spring Flowers.
A few weeks ago Linda Witkowski, a conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, came to the Swope to examine Benton’s painting Threshing Wheat. In 1954 the painting went on loan to an exhibition of Benton’s work. In preparation for the exhibition Benton decided to clean the yellowed varnish and ended up completing an extensive restoration job. This he told the Swope in a letter sent after his reparations. In fact he did not finish to his satisfaction and convinced the Museum to forward the painting at the close of the exhibition so that he could finish the job. His “cleaning” including fixing a couple of scratches or cracks which he noted in his next letter; Benton used both words, scratch and crack, and we only have his word on it, for there is no other condition report on file from the time. But the artist’s mend is clearly visible to anyone looking at the painting today.
In his report back to the Swope Benton wrote “Under strong side light and to close inspection the repaired cracked areas still show a little. I was afraid to sand too vigorously around these areas for fear of losing too much of the original sky to permit matching its color.” When I read “sanding” and “vigorously” I was shocked and wondered if that treatment had made the visible scars worse. Museum practices, and speed of communication, have changed quite a bit since 1954. Loan contracts and the general institutional conventions of today would have prevented him from touching the painting without permission from the Museum.
Benton ended his letter with this statement: “Fixing this picture has been a tricky business but I am glad you let me do it rather than some restorer who might not figure out how it was originally painted.” A message directly from Benton to Ms. Witkowski, joked Brian Whisenhunt the Swope’s Executive Director during the conservators visit. Regardless of Benton’s opinion, as Witkowski explained, current ethics and standards in the conservation field regarding touch-up over-painting is that all work must be reversible and the intent of the artist must be kept intact. With this in mind Ms. Witkowski is not inclined to touch the artists mend, which is in stable condition, though she is quite qualified to work on his painting. Witkowski is one of the conservators who worked on the restored Indiana History Murals by Benton now housed at Indiana University, Bloomington.
I do not know what “restorer” practices were in Benton’s time, but today conservators conduct extensive study and testing to figure out how a painting was constructed before they begin cleaning or repairs. There will always be unethical or ill-trained people who set up shop, however today a reputable conservator has training almost as extensive as an M.D. including studies in both the science of art materials and in art history.
In 1985 Threshing Wheat was treated for severe flaking in the bottom half but the scars from Benton’s repair were not touched for the same reasons Witkowski expressed. Benton was notoriously abrasive to and prejudiced against the Museum world; ironically if it weren’t for Linda Witkowski, and other Museum conservators, much of Benton’s work would not be around for us to admire.
In contrast the two Sepeshy tempera paintings, in the Swope collection, have had no serious conservation issues; perhaps this is a testament to the quality of advice Sepeshy gives in his book Tempera Painting.
Both paintings can be seen in the gallery “Looking Forward, Looking Back Art of the 1930s & 1940s” on the second floor of the Swope Art Museum.

2 thoughts on “Encounters with two paintings and a conservator

  1. I’d noticed too that many 30’s & 40’s American painters were drawn to tempera.
    Always wondered about that. After the passage you quote from Shepeshy’s book, I don’t think I’ll run out and try it.

  2. Just an FYI,

    I would lay money that Passenger Liner in the Background of the Reginald Marsh painting (Battery Belles) is the CGT (the French Lines) Normandie. If the Painting is of 1938, as it professes, then there are clues that would make this true. First the Color Scheme, Red funnels with Black tops were the French Lines signature. Also her funnels were raked (Slanted Backwards) to give the impression of speed even while at berth. Unfortanately her most recognizable feature, her whale back is hidden behind the Tug’s Funnel. Also, on the back of the ship fly 3 flags, Top most is a Blue Ribband, (The French Line Created) as a material embodiement of the Hales Trophy for the fastest Trans Atlantic passage, which Normandie had in 1938, and also the bottom flag is the French Tricolor, Bleu, Blanc & Rouge.

    The following year the majestic liner caught fire, after being ‘seized’ by the Unbited States so it would not be turned over to the Germans as spoils of war, and while undergoing conversion to the Troop Transport the USS Lafayette. It was not the fire that destroyed her, but an overabundance of water pumped onto the fire caused her to capsize at her berth in NY harbor. (I think it was Pier 48, but don’t quote me on that)

    Just something that caught my eye as I was enjoying the gallery.

    One other thing, on one of the descriptions downstairs it lists the St Vrains River in Colorado, it is singular, St Vrain. Trust me, I grew up in Colorado & graduated from the St. Vrain Valley Educational System.


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