Murals bloom again thanks to students
Photos courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art August 24, 2017
UD team prepares rare flower-themed paintings for exhibit
A collection of rare mural paintings, In Exaltation of Flowers, will go on public view in September, for the first time in more than a century, thanks to conservation work by a team of University of Delaware students and alumni.
The seven paintings by Edward Jean Steichen, an artist who was best known for his photography, will be exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art from Sept. 5 through May 28. Two students and two recent alumni from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) have spent the summer examining the large canvases, studying the methods and materials the artist used and implementing conservation treatments.
The four interns, all specializing in the conservation of paintings, are working under the supervision of Laura Eva Hartman, the museum’s associate paintings conservator who also is a UD alumna. Hartman earned her bachelor’s degree in art conservation in 2010 and her master’s degree through WUDPAC in 2013.
Calling the paintings “unique and magnificent,” Hartman noted that they have been in storage for 102 years. The conservation team unrolled the seven canvases and studied them in detail, stretched them onto new supports and then cleaned and restored their surfaces.
“My four UD interns have been phenomenal,” Hartman said. “They are all brilliant and extremely talented. … Several discoveries were made during the [examination] process which have greatly enhanced the historical context of the murals.”
The paintings, which were displayed together for the first and only time in 1915, have an intriguing history.
Financier Eugene Meyer and his wife, Agnes, commissioned Steichen in 1911 to create a mural for the foyer of their new Park Avenue townhouse in New York City. The Meyers were among a group of Steichen’s friends—which also included the dancer Isadora Duncan, actress Mercedes de Cordoba and painters Arthur Carles and Marion Beckett—who often visited Steichen’s home in France, where he had an extensive flower garden that they all enjoyed.
For the townhouse murals, Steichen depicted his friends in various floral motifs and flower-themed settings.
He worked on the paintings from 1911 to 1914, but the Meyers ran into financial difficulties and sold their home before the murals could be installed. The panels were exhibited at a New York gallery and then put into storage.
In a series of blogs, the UD conservation interns have detailed their work throughout the summer.
Because the canvases had been rolled up for more than a century, they were marred by water damage, dust and dirt, which “dulled the colors and deadened the sheen of the paint,” interns wrote. After gently cleaning each mural with tiny sponges, the interns found a “surprisingly fresh surface” on the paintings.
Intern and 2016 WUDPAC alumna Pamela Johnson described the early part of the project, when the conservators were unrolling and stretching the large panels, getting them ready for more detailed work.
“While the most glamorous parts of conservation treatments are usually the final steps … the beginning of a project often includes a lot of preparatory work and a healthy amount of elbow grease,” Johnson wrote. “It is just as important that we are precise in these first stages of treatment as we are in the final steps.”
The team also used X-ray fluorescence technology to analyze the elements present in the paintings.
“Throughout the treatment, the team has had the unique opportunity to look at very early examples of Steichen’s paintings and artistic career, and have done a brilliant job of examining and documenting the entire process,” Hartman said. “We are looking forward to publishing our findings and for the opening of the exhibition that will accompany the project.”
About the conservation team and the museum
The conservation interns working this summer to prepare the Steichen painting for exhibition are all students or alumni of WUDPAC, a three-year master’s degree program operated jointly by the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum.
Internationally known, the program is one of only five graduate programs in art conservation in North America and one of only two jointly sponsored between a university and a museum.
The conservation interns working on the Steichen project were Keara Teeter ’19, Diana Hartman ’18, Pamela Johnson ’16 and Samantha Skelton ’14. Supervising the project was Laura Eva Hartman ’10, ’13M.
Founded in 1903, the Dallas Museum of Art is one of the 10 largest art museums in the United States. It opened its in-house Paintings Conservation Studio in 2013.
The exhibition Edward Steichen: In Exaltation of Flowers (1910-1914) is overseen by Sue Canterbury, the museum’s Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art. The murals in the exhibition are part of a private collection.