JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 51 to 64)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 51 to 64)

Examination, Technical Analysis, and Treatment of His Works in the Charles Bregler Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts




The paintings by Thomas Eakins in the Bregler Collection include 20 oil sketches of landscapes and figures and one finished portrait. They are listed in table 1.



Eakins used sketches to make compositional decisions and to note the true color and tone of elements in the design. All of the sketches in the collection were rapidly executed in a wet-into-wet technique. Eakins intended them as working sketches, and he often reused them several times, overpainting old sketches with new ones and scraping down unimportant sketches so that they could be repainted. He often painted several adjoining sketches on the same support.

The x-radiograph of Eakins's sketch Thar's a New Game Down in 'Frisco, a study for an illustration to a Bret Harte story, shows an earlier sketch when inverted. Eakins clearly painted this sketch over a study for the watercolor Young Girl Meditating (1877, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Eakins frequently transferred designs from his preparatory sketches to larger paintings by means of a grid of squares. This “squaring up” process involved incising a grid pattern into all or part of the sketch with a pencil or stylus and then enlarging the design onto a canvas by use of a corresponding grid of larger squares. The direct correspondence of such a pattern from a sketch to a much larger painting can be seen by comparing the Pennsylvania Academy's The Cello Player (1896) to its preparatory sketch at the Hecksher Museum. The lines appear in the same parts of the figure and background in both works.

Eakins also frequently made oil sketches for his watercolors, a practice that is quite unusual when compared to that of his contemporaries. His finely rendered watercolors were planned with spontaneous oil sketches that were often larger than the watercolors for which they were made. The Bregler Collection contains another oil sketch for the watercolor Young Girl Meditating. The figure in the oil sketch is gridded for transfer in 1 in squares, while the more complex passages such as the face and hands are divided into a � in grid.

Eakins's oil sketches were done on a variety of supports, including paper, plain weave and twill fabrics, cardboard, and wood panels. The wood panels, which are of poplar or pine, were used by Eakins in the late 1870s and early 1880s (Siegl 1978), 73. Fabric and cardboard supports appear throughout the artist's career.

Ground colors vary from sketch to sketch. The sketches on fabric all bear commercially prepared lead white oil grounds. A thin brown imprimatura was brushed onto the grounds of several sketches on canvas and on primed paper. Paintings done on wooden supports bore dark tan or brown grounds. The brown ground on the sketch Spinning: Study, which is on panel, was applied with a knife. The grounds on this sketch and on Eakins's studies of nudes on cardboard are loosely applied with unmixed colors, suggesting that the artist used palette scrapings.

Eakins's technique in his finished paintings was quite consistent throughout his career in terms of his materials. While the sketches were painted on a variety of supports, Eakins's larger works are invariably on stretched and primed fabrics with smooth lead white oil grounds. Plain weave fabrics were used more often than twill weaves.

Eakins's method of beginning a portrait is evident in such unfinished works as Mrs. Joseph Drexel (1900, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) and Portrait of a Young Man (ca 1902, Philadelphia Museum of Art), in which broad washes of local color are used to establish the major forms and tonal relationships in the composition. Eakins often sketched in the design with thin lines of dark paint or graphite. Graphite lines are visible in Portrait of a Young Man, loosely indicating placement of forms under the washes of paint (Siegl 1978), 146. Eakins sometimes used thin imprimaturas of tan, red-brown, or warm gray paint to tone the white ground as an initial step in his painting process.

After the initial laying-in of the work, Eakins's method involved the application of multiple layers of paint, slowly building form and perfecting details. Eakins occasionally used painting knives in addition to brushes to indicate roughly textured highlights.

Eakins typically required many sittings for his portraits. Harrison Morris, former director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who posed for Eakins in 1896, recalled: “I stood day after day while he patiently transcribed me—for his method stuck closely to the object” (quoted in Hendricks 1974, 220). Numerous sitters mentioned the difficulty of posing for Eakins for long periods with little rest, since Eakins seemed to lose track of time while painting.


Eakins's palette in the oil sketches was examined by optical microscopy of crushed pigment samples. Thirty-two samples from 14 paintings were examined. The pigments identified by microscopy include lead white, vermilion, red, yellow and brown earth colors, ultramarine blue, viridian green, chrome yellow, organic red lake, and bone black. This palette of generally stable pigments, with its emphasis on warm colors, was described by Eakins's student and friend Samuel Murray: “Eakins used mostly all earth colors … across the top of the palette reading from right to left would be the following colors: cadmium yellow and orange, vermilion, light red, burnt sienna, permanent blue, Van Dyke brown, and black: Eakins didn't use bitumen, which is fatal to pictures meant to last; and he never used lakes or fancy colors that run and are not permanent—those synthetic, made from anilines” (quoted in McHenry 1946, 102–3). Chrome yellow, rather than cadmium yellow, was found in the Pennsylvania Academy's samples. Chrome yellow was also identified on paint samples taken by conservator Theodor Siegl from Eakins's paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Siegl).

Eakins produced about 30 watercolors in the 1870s and 1880s. His watercolor box, with its numerous colors, brushes, and other painting implements, forms one of the most interesting parts of the Bregler Collection's wealth of artists' materials. The box is labeled by Bregler as Thomas Eakins's, although it may also have been used by Susan Eakins, herself a capable watercolorist. The set of colors began with a small mahogany box from the English manufacturer Waring and Dimes. Other colors were added by Eakins from paints made by Winsor & Newton, Newman, and MacPherson's Tints by Ackerman, all English manufacturers. A few stray colors in porcelain tubs are also present, as well as sable and camel hair brushes with both wooden and goose quill handles, a tablet of sumi ink, and glass dishes for mixing colors. The colors are all hard cakes, most in the form of embossed tablets bearing the names of the color and the manufacturer.

Colors were identified from their labels or by microscopy of crushed samples when the cakes were illegible. The pigments identified include aureolin, Naples yellow, gamboge, a barium- strontium chromate yellow, red, yellow and brown earth colors, Van Dyke brown, Cologne earth, vermilion, organic red lake, a possible violet lake, emerald green, cobalt blue, indigo, Prussian blue, zinc white, bone black, and lamp black. Some colors were pre-mixed tints consisting of several pigments. All colors were in use during the period of Eakins's watercolor production.


The conservation of the paintings in the collection provided an opportunity to study Charles Bregler's methods and intentions as a restorer. In an effort to authenticate the oil sketches, Bregler wrote inscriptions on labels on the reverse of mounted sketches, supplying anecdotal information about the sketch's origin, identifying the painting for which it was made, and declaring his ownership of it. In many instances, Bregler incised inscriptions into the paint of the sketch itself to further ensure its identification.

Bregler's labels sometimes discuss his restoration methods and his reason for choosing certain types of mounts. On the reverse of Girl with a Fan (ca. 1906–08), which was painted on fabric and mounted by Bregler to plywood with an attached stretcher using a lead white adhesive, is an inscription reading: “Rebacked on a wood panel/ by a special process/ making the painting safe for all time/ by Charles Bregler.” Bregler often attempted to turn sketches into more finished paintings by painting out areas of exposed ground at the edges with thick oil paint in order to continue the sky or foreground to the edges of a rectangular format in landscapes. He also repainted backgrounds in figure studies.

Bregler cut some sketches to make a composition of his own choice before repainting. He also incised outlines around some sketches as a guide for framing. To the missing corners of two sketches he added paper pieces similar in texture to Eakins's original paper supports.

Bregler also cut wooden panels bearing multiple studies into individual compositions. Landscape Study: The Fairman Rogers Four-in Hand was once on the reverse of a panel that bore a Delaware River scene and two studies of heads. Bregler split the panel in half with a saw whose marks can be plainly seen on the reverse of the panels. The landscape and head studies were then separated into individual panels as well. Panels split in this fashion were then mounted by Bregler with lead white and nails to Masonite. Bregler mounted other small sketches on fabric and paper to cardboard with animal skin glue.


Conservation treatment of the paintings involved undoing most of Bregler's restorations. Yellowed natural resin varnishes and overpaint were removed wherever possible. After cleaning all paintings were revarnished with Acryloid B-72 and inpainted with Bocour Magna colors. Bregler's additions of paper to the corners of the mounts were revealed by overpaint removal but were left in place to add structural support. They were not inpainted, however, so as to clearly identify them as nonoriginal.

In instances where wooden panels were split by their nailed mounts or appeared unstable, the Masonite, nails, and lead white adhesive were removed mechanically before the panels were repaired. If the mounted panel appeared stable, no treatment was performed.

Delaware Riverscape from Glouster (ca. 1881) had been cut by Bregler into two pieces. As discussed previously, these scenes were among several sketches once belonging to the same panel. The left side had been acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy in 1966. After the right side was acquired in 1985, the staff decided to reunite the pieces into a single composition. Fortunately, the contours of the cut edges matched well, and the Masonite mounts were not well adhered. Lascaux 360 hv acrylic dispersion adhesive was used to attach ragboard pieces spanning the join on the reverse of the panels as an initial step in rejoining them. This adhesive is flexible enough to allow for movement in the wood in this 4 in high panel. Two small blocks of pine were then adhered to the reverse of the panels across the join with hide glue and were clamped to bring the front surfaces of the panels into line, providing a flush join. The join line was then filled on the front with vinyl paste spackle, textured with microcrystalline wax and Liquitex Polymer Gloss Medium, and inpainted with Magna. The sketch then read as the panoramic view intended by the artist.

Copyright � 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works