Arts Quarterly July/Aug/Sept. 2003

With a Little Help from Our Fiends: The New Orleans Conservation Guild Restores a First Empire Frame

John Webster Keefe
The RosaMary Foundation Curator of the Decorative Arts, NOMA

In and era of shrinking global national, state and local support for museums and their programs, it is frequently all but impossible to put some objects into "exhibition condition" without assistance from skilled and qualified colleagues. Such was the case with the splendid First Empire (1804-14) carved giltwood frame surrounding Baron Antoine-Jean Gro's full-length 1808 portrait of Empress Josephine at her beloved chateau of Malmaison. The portrait belongs to the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Palais Masséna, Nice, France, and was presented by the empress to her friend Monsieur Pierlot in 1810.

When the New Orleans Museum of Art requested the loan of this impressive portrait to the exhibition Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France, there was concern on the part of the Musée Masséna that the frame was not in sufficiently good condition to travel or to be exhibited. This problem was compounded by damage sustained in shipping to the United States. At that juncture, the Museum asked the New Orleans Conservation Guild if its highly skilled group of modelers, carvers and gilders could come to its assistance. Happily for the Musée Masséna and visitors of the exhibition, the guild and its director Blake Vonder Haar agreed to undertake the complex restoration as a gesture of international good will.

The most recent transit damage had caused large structural defects that separated the layers of wood in the frame, i.e., the gilded facade and the underlying carcase wood. These cracks included one on one side that measured more than five feet in length and, on the opposite side, another of three and a half feet. These large cracks were accompanied by other smaller fissures extending from the outer to the inner edges of the gilded surface. The frame also had suffered an earlier amateurish restoration in which the missing molded relief palmettes had been crudely executed and whose gilding made little attempt to blend newly gilded area with the original goldleaf, creating a splotched brassy surface. Thus, the artisans of the guild were faced with a two-fold problem: to stabilize the structure of the frame and to replicate the missing or unrefined decorative elements.

The frame was structurally repaired and the earlier disguising coat of ruby shellac was removed, with extreme care being taken not to disturb and original elements. That accomplished, the unsatisfactory replaced ornamental details were removed, which left the frame with thirty-five to forty percent of its original decoration. Molds of the missing palmettes and other details were made and new parts cast, put in place and detailed in situ. The replaced ornament and those frame areas were then prepared with a gesso, a viscous chalk and glue fluid applied as a ground for gilding and which is capable of taking great detail. Gesso also had the added attributes of filling crevices and softening edges. It was applied in layers and, once dry, could be cut into the format of the underlying preliminary wood carving. Once this cutting and refinement were accomplished, the gessoed surfaces were covered with bole, an extremely finely ground earth composed of clay and iron oxide, which was then burnished, creating an electrostatic surface to which the notoriously delicate gold leaf could adhere. Since the bole was red in color, it added brilliance and a warm tone to the overlain goldleaf. The gilding was accomplished by a water gilding process, applying the gold one leaf at a time, utilizing 23.75-karat gold. The highlights were then burnished as well in order to heighten their brilliance.

The final challenge facing the skilled and painstaking guild team was to match this new gilding to the original, which had, of course, oxidized and slightly discolored over nearly two centuries. The edges of the new and original gilding were blended and the entire surface toned to provide a homogenous appearance that reflected the present age and the original appearance of the frame.

As if this complicated and labor-intensive work were not enough, it was then discovered that the carved giltwood donor cartouche centering the top rail was seriously soiled, had been covered in gold paint and bore a quantity of old excess glue, the result of past attempts to attach it to its support. Once cleaned, it was clear that a number of the delicately carved leaves in its wreath were missing, and these had to be replaced and regilded. In the past, this element had been attached to the frame rail by screws, resulting in a number of unnecessary holes that had to be filled. That accomplished, new holes were set with removable pins so the plaque could be easily removed and packed separately when the painting was returned to its French home.

In looking at such rare period frames, it is crucial to bear in mind that they usually cost more than the painting they surrounded. Although Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) became a prominent history painter and portraitist under Napoleon I, and is today regarded as an important early nineteenth-century precursor of Romanticism, it is probable that the frame for this large portrait of the fashion plate Empress Josephine cost more than his painting in its day. The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries regarded frames as important pieces of furniture; this was particularly true for large-scale portraits of exalted personages. Thus it was crucial for the purposes of exhibition that the frame for this full-length portrait of "that incomparable Josephine," commissioned by the emperor in 1808, resemble as nearly as possible its appearance 195 years ago.

To accomplish this, the highly trained and skilled members of the New Orleans Conservation Guild team headed by senior frame restorer Anne-Clark Cromwell work for a total of seventy-eight hours, or nearly two forty-hour work weeks, and used thirteen books, or 325 leaves, of 23.75-karat gold. The brilliant result is an artfully restored frame that very closely resembles its original appearance in 1808, the year Baron Gros completed the major portrait it contains.

The New Orleans Museum of Art is grateful to the New Orleans Conservation Guild for this major contribution to the success of the Jefferson's America & Napoleon's France exhibition, which could only have come to fruition through such shared talent and skills.

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