Behind the Scenes in Conservation: Varnish and Grime

by Conservation

5/3/2018

behind the scenes , conservation , Edward Moran , American Art

When a conservator cleans a painting it’s usually described as using solvents to remove varnish and grime layers.  And often the discolored varnishes and dirt are removed together, using a single solution of solvents.  But every once in a while a grime layer is so dense that it obscures not just the paint, but also the condition of the varnish beneath.  So it’s sometimes a good plan to remove the two layers separately, as was the case with this seascape by Edward Moran (1829-1901). 

The surface of this painting was so dark it was almost impossible to judge what its original colors were, never mind how the varnish had fared, or were even present.  Once the grime layer was removed however, it was easy to see that the varnish was very yellow, and should also be removed.  In this image taken during cleaning, the grime layer has been removed from the right half of the painting and removal of the yellowed varnish has also begun from the right.  The yellow band down the center of the scene is where just varnish remains.  It’s a good illustration of how varnish and grime can disfigure a painting.  The cleaning was completed a couple of weeks ago and the transformed painting is now on view in our American Art gallery 217.