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October 11, 2010 — When curators at the University of Virginia Art Museum sent three paintings from its collection for conservation treatment in preparation for an upcoming exhibit, they received a very pleasant surprise. The restoration revealed that the paintings were of much greater significance than originally estimated.
One painting in particular, a study of Benjamin West's "The Last Supper," underwent a striking transformation. Museum director and curator Bruce Boucher said he had been under the impression that the painting was a grisaille – a work painted solely in shades of brown. This, however, proved not to be the case.
"What we thought was a yellow table cloth is white," Jean Collier, collections manager, added. The restoration revealed pieces of blue sky outside of the window.
The painting was covered in layers of soot and tobacco smoke, Boucher explained, which provides interesting insight into the painting's history. It likely was privately owned and displayed in a home, perhaps over a fireplace.
The conservator was also able to repair damages to the artwork, such as a chip in the painting over Christ's left eye.
"In effect, you can read this more clearly than you could in its darkened and grimy state," Boucher said.
Thanks to the restoration performed at the Richmond Conservation Studio, the painting is now evidence of some trends in artwork display from the turn of the 19th century. Indentations along the borders of the canvas revealed that "the upper and lower tacking edges of the canvas had been opened out during an earlier lining procedure," Collier said.
"There was a fashion where owners would want to move it to a bigger frame," Boucher said. To do so, they would add borders to the painting to add size, or in this case, paint around the expanded edges to make the colors and composition match that of the rest of the painting.
The museum decided to retain some of the alterations to the painting. West's signature appears to have been reinforced using a coat of varnish. As a result, the finish of the painting is not uniform, but Boucher said he felt that this change was vital to "the history of the painting."
Now, the museum is more aware of West's creative process, and some of the details and decisions he struggled with in creating the work. The final depiction of Judas, for instance, is much different than its original. Black-and-white infrared reflectance photographs revealed that in a sketch of the painting, Judas' bag of gold is larger and more prominent, whereas in the final version the bag is smaller, and his view is directed toward the audience.
"The conservation has shown that this is a much more important painting than we originally thought," Boucher said.
At the same time, a work by English portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence was restored. Boucher was shocked to see the painting in its restored state; not only were the colors more vibrant and lively, he said, but the degree of skill and accomplishment in the work was much more apparent.
Boucher said that he e-mailed an image of the painting to a Lawrence expert, who was able to identify Harriet, Countess Gower, an English noblewoman, as the painting's subject.
"We think what we have now is an unknown painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence," he said. "We have discovered virtually two new works."
These newly renovated paintings will be important features in the museum's exhibition, "Classic to Romantic; British Art in an Age of Transition," which Boucher said will examine the neoclassical and romantic traditions, often considered as being in opposition to each other, to reveal that both groups of artists "are subscribers to the same principles with different issues."
In addition to the restored paintings of Lawrence and West, on view also will be works by William Blake, Henry Fuseli, Samuel Palmer and Joseph Mallord William Turner. The exhibit opens Oct. 29 and runs through Jan. 30. It is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.