ARTHUR B. DAVIES'S MOUNTAIN BELOVED OF SPRING: DETERMINING TREATMENT BY RECONSTRUCTING A PAINTING'S HISTORY
NANCY R. POLLAK
As the investigation and treatment of Mountain unfolded, the most telling piece of evidence appeared to be the Juley photograph. While visual examination of the photograph served in the decision-making process, a more quantitative comparison of the value differences in the sky was attempted by measuring the image density across the sky. Using a reflected light densitometer, the image density was measured in each half of the sky, with the tallest mountain serving as the dividing point. The two readings were subtracted, with the resultant number representing the value difference between the two halves of the sky. In theory, a result of zero would indicate no value difference in the sky, while increasingly larger integers would indicate a greater value difference. Thus it was suspected that the before- and during-treatment photographs would have a value near zero, while the Juley and after-treatment photographs would have a larger value difference number.
The image density measurements of the individual photographs did appear to corroborate visual observations. The Juley photograph showed the greatest value difference, and the before- and during-treatment photographs showed almost no value difference. The after-treatment photograph showed a small value difference. Because the conditions and processes used in the Juley photograph were not duplicated for the treatment photographs, no comparisons could be made among the various photographs. Even if all the photographs were taken under the same conditions, unknown parameters, such as the presence of unaged varnish on the painting at the time of the Juley photograph, precluded comparisons.
Looking at the treated painting and the Juley photograph, faint variations in the sky can be seen in the photograph that appear to correspond to variations in the treated painting, but they are much more pronounced in the actual painting. It is possible that the film used for the Juley photograph was not as sensitive to blues as first suspected, and the image was not as accurate as originally thought. A varnish layer on the painting also may have affected the reproduction of values in the sky in the Juley photograph. Even though the treated painting and the Juley photograph do not correspond exactly, the painting overall appears to be more in keeping with the photograph after the removal of the green-blue paint layer, and it does appear likely that the photograph was taken before the application of the second paint layer. On the other hand, the possibility remains that the second paint layer had changed greatly with time, possibly becoming more opaque, and was indeed present in the photograph. Although the photograph appeared to offer a great deal of information, in the final analysis it did not offer much that was conclusive.
After removal of the second paint layer, the spatial unity and overall facile brushwork of the painting were restored. The blue paint layer beneath the overpaint and varnish had been applied with bold brush strokes, some of which reveal the cream-colored ground, creating cloud patterns and depth in the sky. These brushstrokes carefully delineate other compositional elements, particularly the distant mountains.
The pooled varnish residues and areas of abrasion found during overpaint removal do reinforce the suspicion that an attempt was made to clean the painting prior to the application of the green-blue paint layer. It is possible that the painting had undergone restoration that had included the structural work and an attempt to remove varnish in the sky, where darkened varnish would have been most noticeable. Cleaning may have stopped in the sky when it became apparent that the paint layer was being abraded. The middle and foregrounds may not have been cleaned due to fear of disrupting glazes or because a yellowed varnish was not as noticeable there. After partially cleaning the painting, the restorer probably overpainted the sky to cover abrasion and varnish residues, then revarnished the painting. This scenario would account for the double thickness of varnish in the middle and foregrounds and the layering of varnish and overpaint present in the sky area. It should be noted that while the overpaint was very disfiguring at the time of this treatment, it is possible that the overpaint had discolored with age and was not as visually disturbing when first applied.
Taken individually, the pieces of information gathered during analysis and treatment could not confirm that the second paint layer was later restoration. However, the entire body of evidence seems to confirm the hypothetical history constructed for the painting. Future research may uncover more pieces of the history of Mountain, but it seems unlikely that a piece of conclusive evidence will ever be found. The present treatment of the painting has now become part of its history. It is hoped that Davies would have approved of the chosen course.
The author would like to thank Susan Faxon, associate director and curator of paintings, prints, and drawings, Addison Gallery of American Art, and the staff of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center for their assistance and support during the treatment of the painting and in the writing of this article; and Nora Kennedy, conservator of photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, for use of her densitometer and her assistance in the analysis of the photographs.