When most people think of the term “conservation”, environmental conservation might come to mind rather than art. Sometimes the conservation of nature coincides with the conservation of art, as in the case of the portrait of Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the United States Forest Service and known as the father of American conservation, from Grey Towers National Historic Site McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory recently treated the portrait of Mr. Pinchot.
The painting arrived at our conservation lab facilities just outside of Cleveland. Stefan Dedecek, Conservator of Paintings, Murals and Polychrome Surfaces noted condition issues such as flaking paint, discolored varnish, dirt, paint losses on the frame, and a warped appearance exhibited by both the painting and the frame. Changes in humidity and temperature had stressed the wood the stretcher and the frame, twisting them out of plane. This paintings conservation treatment would be a challenge.
A new stretcher replaced the previous warped stretcher. Since the frame was to be re-used, modifications were needed by Conservator Dedecek and Conservation Assistant Dee Pipik. For the frame conservation, the frame was completely disassembled and the mitered corners sanded. Then the rabbet (the recessed groove that holds the painting on the inside of the frame) was enlarged allowing painting to move in response to environmental fluctuations in the future. Finally, the reverse of the frame was reinforced to provide added strength and stability. Pipik also cleaned, repaired and retouched the front of the frame.
The warped stretcher left its mark on the painting creating an overall slack and visible cracks in the paint layer which corresponded to the inner edges of the stretcher bars. After flattening, the canvas was lined in order to keep it flat. The painting was cleaned, the losses filled, and the fills inpainted, all followed by a final varnish layer. After the paintings conservation treatment was complete, Mr. Pinchot was ready to be reframed.
As mentioned, Gifford Pinchot was the first Chief of the United States Forest Service and is known as the father of American conservation. He is known by this because of unrelenting efforts to gain federal protection for American forests. There are parks named after him in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Washington State, along with a lake in Pennsylvania, a giant sequoia in Muir woods, California and sycamore in his native state of Connecticut. After the Forest Service he was twice governor of Pennsylvania. He wrote several books and developed a fishing kit to be used in lifeboats during World War II.
Pinchot felt that forests should be used for “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” Much like art conservators who make decisions based on what will be best for the art many years down the road. One could say that the conservation of the environment and art both serve a similar purpose: preserving our heritage whether it culture or nature.