George Catlin Painting Restored
Through the generosity of alumni donors, the College recently had a George Catlin portrait of James Madison restored. The painting on white poplar panel is valued in the tens of thousands of
dollars and is considered one of the College’s most valuable pieces. It currently hangs in the Madison Music Room at Middlecourt.
Catlin is known primarily through his portraits and scenes of American Indians from the mid-19th century. He travelled throughout the Old West, painting tribesmen such as Chief White Cloud, of the Iowa, and Chief Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, of the Blood Tribe. He toured the United States and Europe with his Indian Gallery, which numbered more than 500 paintings, the collection eventually becoming housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. He was less prolific with portraits of European Americans, but the 30"x24" Madison oil painting is one of at least three copies, this one made circa 1830.
The painting suffered from tenting, or raised paint layers, often caused by shrinking surfaces; cloudy imagery caused by old varnish; flaking; and damages around the edges of the panel, among other deteriorations. Conservators at the Richmond Conservation Studio examined the Madison portrait to assess the damage and aging. Infrared photos revealed where Catlin spread the original paint, providing an outline or map for conservators, and ultraviolet light exposed undesirable paint added in later restoration attempts.
After analyzing the painting they dusted the paint surface, cleaned it with acetone, applied a toluene rinse, and removed varnish and the added paint. A synthetic resin was then applied. Losses in the grain were filled with a fine-textured, water-soluble putty, and then inpainted to bring out the original image.
Many of the College’s artwork and artifacts rely on restoration and maintenance for their preservations, a regular process within the collection. Thanks to donations from alumni and friends, this valuable piece of historical artwork will grace the walls of the College for years to come.