David Teniers II (Flanders, 1610–1690), The Artist with a Fortune Teller in a Landscape, ca. 1640–1650. Oil on canvas. Gift of Merle J. and Emily N. Trees 1948-1-2
Peter de Hooch (Dutch 1629-1684), A Woman Feeding Her Child and Paying a Servant, ca. 1675–1680. Oil on canvas. Gift of Merle J. and Emily N. Trees 1942-1-2.
Ralph Albert Blakelock. Moonlight on the Brook, ca. 1886-95. Oil on canvas, mounted on panel. Gift of Mr. And Mrs. Merle J. Trees. 1940-3-1; 2015-2016 Conservation made possible through the generosity of the Trees Conservation Fund.

Paintings treated by conservators include one of the most significant works in the museum’s collection of European art, “The Artist with a Fortune Teller in a Landscape” by David Teniers II. One wall of the Trees Gallery at the museum was rehung with the Teniers painting as its centerpiece. Two adjacent walls have also been rearranged to highlight important holdings in the museum’s collection. The new arrangement of the art draws attention to the Teniers painting and illustrates the wealth of 17th century Dutch and Flemish art in the museum’s collection, said Maureen Warren, the museum’s curator of European and American art.

The recent conservation work removed varnish that had darkened and was obscuring the color and details of the paintings. It also removed paint that had been added to cover areas of paint loss but that no longer matched the original paint, and repairs were made to damaged areas of the paintings.

When the Teniers painting was being moved a few years ago, some of the gilding on the frame began to crumble. The frame was sent to the restorers at Eli Wilner & Company in New York City, who preserved as much of the original gilding as possible and touched up any areas where the gilding was lost.

Painted in the 1640s, the Teniers painting also needed conservation.

“Old master paintings frequently have a natural resin varnish,” Warren said. “It protects the surface of the painting but darkens over time with exposure to UV light, so parts of the painting were very dark.”

Chicago conservator Cynthia Kuniej Berry removed the varnish, as well as additional paint that had been applied over time; cleaned the painting; and repaired damage to the canvas and areas of paint loss.

The Teniers painting is significant both because of its size – approximately 5 feet by 7 feet – and its subject matter.

“A painting of this size was really intended for the wealthiest members of society. It’s very much a painting on a princely scale,” Warren said.

“Genre paintings,” or scenes from everyday life, had become popular at the time. It is a self-portrait – rare for Teniers – showing the artist having his fortune told by a Gypsy in a large landscape. The painting represents his rise from a relatively humble background to an acclaimed artist, Warren said.

The conservation work was paid for by the Trees Conservation Fund. The Trees family, for whom the gallery displaying the Teniers painting is named, donated both artwork and money for conservation.

The museum has established a relationship with Barry Bauman, a Chicago conservator who does pro bono work. The relationship will allow it to stretch further its limited funds for conservation work.

The museum was able to treat four other paintings recently, thanks to this relationship. Bauman removed dark varnish and made other repairs to the paintings he treated.

A painting titled “A Woman Feeding Her Child and Paying a Servant,” by Pieter de Hooch, had serious issues. Some of the paint was starting to lift off the canvas, creating ridges in the paint. Bauman used a vacuum table to draw warm, moist air through the canvas from front to back, which makes the paint lie flat and readhere to the canvas, Warren said.

“With this treatment, you can now see details that were completely obscured. There’s a painting on the back wall (that couldn’t be seen before). You can see all the walls of the room now, instead of just the figures in the foreground,” she said. “It’s a work that really came back to life.”

Another painting, “Moonlight on the Brook” by Ralph Albert Blakelock, is a nocturnal scene, and the darkening varnish was making the painting hard to see.

“The surface is a lot more enamel-like now that it’s been cleaned. Now it’s a really beautiful, nuanced blue-green,” Warren said.

A 17th century Flemish painting, “The Coin Collector” by Joos van Craesbeeck, was painted on an oak panel with a natural curvature that allows it to swell and contract in response to changing humidity. Nails on the sides of the panel restricted this movement, causing the panel to start to crack. The oak panel was reframed properly.

The recently conserved works at the museum are labeled with a blue star and the name of the donor who helped pay for the conservation work.

“We think it’s really important for viewers to get a sense of the behind-the-scenes work that makes it possible for these works to be on display,” Warren said.


Author: Jodi Heckel, Arts and Humanities Editor, University of Illinois News Bureau, 2016