Behind the Scenes in Conservation: A Mysterious Appearance

by Conservation

11/8/2019

behind the scenes , conservation , Thomas Wilmer Dewing , paintings conservation , oil on panel

This tall narrow painting by a husband-and-wife pair is in the paintings conservation studio for removal of varnish and discolored retouching.  It’s believed that the foliage was painted first, by Maria Oakey Dewing.  Her flowering vines originally covered the whole surface of the wood panel.  Hymen, the personification of marriage, was then painted on top of the dried composition by Thomas Wilmer Dewing.  As you can see, the texture of thickly painted leaves is easily visible in the white garment when light reflects off it.

Recently there was an opportunity to X-ray the painting in order to see underlying composition.  As expected, the lush flowers and leaves are present under the figure of Hymen, but it was a great surprise to find a ghostly face in one of the X-ray images.  The head and partial shoulders of a smaller figure can be seen in Hymen’s upper chest.  It appears that Thomas changed the scale of his addition to the painting, enlarging the figure to cover more of Maria’s original botanical composition.  The smaller head also seems to have a more masculine character.  It’s a mystery for future scholars, but meanwhile the conservation treatment has begun.