An iconic painting comes to the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory in Landover, MD
In historic buildings of a certain era you might hear the boast “George Washington visited here”, and at the ARTEX facility in Maryland he really did come to stay—in the form of a painting, that is. The autumn of 2014 saw the final stages of a multi-year conservation project undertaken at the ARTEX Conservation Laboratory for the State of Maryland. Washington Resigning His Commission, Edwin White’s 1858 monumental work depicting George Washington’s famous visit to the Maryland State House, is undergoing conservation at ARTEX. The painting is part of the state-owned art collection, managed by the Commission on Artistic Property of Maryland State Archives.
The conserved painting is scheduled for completion in December, so the artwork should be back in its old home, the Maryland State House by the holiday season. The painting chronicles a Christmas event, in fact: one that took place 231 years ago. On December 23, 1783 — with the war won and the British evacuated at last — George Washington journeyed to Annapolis to resign as Commander-in-Chief. The event was a formal ceremony, held in what is now the Old Senate Chamber, and attended by the entire Congress of the Confederation and important civil leaders. The painting memorializes a critical turning point in U.S. history: by voluntarily giving up his sweeping wartime powers, Washington embraced the elected government and rejected the idea of permanent military rule.
Washington Resigning His Commission, 1858, by Edwin White, Maryland State Archives, Annapolis, MD
The painting, Washington Resigning His Commission, 1858, stands 10 feet high and 15 feet wide with its ornate carved and gilded frame and has hung in the main stairwell of the Maryland State House in Annapolis for decades, so deinstalling the work required a full team of ARTEX riggers and art handlers. The treatment was also monumental in scale: the conservation lab at ARTEX is designed to handle very large paintings, but even so three conservators worked on scaffolding over many months to clean, stabilize and protect the artwork.
It took two full days for a team of eight ARTEX art handlers to deinstall this massive painting from the Grand Staircase of the Maryland State Capitol in Annapolis. The ornate gilded frame was disassembled in situ, and sent to William Lewin Conservation in Baltimore for conservation.
Examination and Conservation Assessment
Before treatment of the painting could begin, a team of conservators examined the structure and surface of Washington Resigning in detail, using microscopy and multispectral imaging to determine the best methods of stabilizing fragile paint layers and replacing deteriorated varnish. The condition was carefully documented using photography and written notes, creating a report that can serve as a reference for future research. Thorough documentation of any treatment is a core principle in professional art conservation, and a requirement of the American Institute for Conservation Code of Ethics.
“Washington Resigning has had an adventurous life, being transported from its home several times for restoration campaigns in 1958, 1981, and 2000. A canvas this large has a tendency to sag over time, and in 1981 conservators adhered it to a rigid panel for added stability. The ARTEX conservation team needed to determine what was original, and what old restorations such as varnish and retouching need to be removed, replaced, or reworked.” Katherine Holbrow, ARTEX Director of Conservation
Over several months, conservators Kristen Loudermilk, Christy Saint-Germain, and Laura Reid have carefully removed deteriorated and yellowing varnish and explored the paint below. “The painting had several layers of discolored and deteriorated varnish, as well as a heavy layer of dust and surface grime from many decades on display,” Loudermilk explained. “The treatment required careful testing, a knowledge of the methods and materials used in historic paintings, and lots of patience.”
All conservators at Artex have graduate level training in the science of paint and varnish systems as well as art history and studio art experience. Every conservation step takes place after careful study of the many paint layers, often using special examination techniques including ultraviolet, infrared and microscopic imaging.
ARTEX Paintings conservator Kristen Loudermilk uses prepared dry pigments in an acrylic resin medium to compensate for old paint losses around the head of Martha Washington. The new paints will be easily removable if future conservation is needed. Although Martha Washington is depicted in the painting seated with her niece, this was artistic license on the part of artist Edwin White. Martha was in fact waiting for him in Virginia. White’s painting presents an idealized and symbolic reconstruction of the event, painted 75 years later.
A Window into Maryland History
The architecture of the room shown in Washington Resigning has sparked interest among historians as well. Maryland’s Old Senate Chamber, one of America’s most historic rooms, is undergoing restoration following the recommendations of the Maryland State House Trust. The 1772 building is the oldest state house still in use. The building remains one of the best preserved grand spaces of the federal era—an era of grand reception rooms and palaces. The niche seen behind Washington in the painting still survives intact today, as does the ornate frieze around the ceiling. “This painting is a iconic part of the visitor experience in the State House,” says Elaine Rice Bachmann, Director of Artistic Property at the Archives. “White’s interpretation of the scene visualizes Washington’s presence in the Old Senate Chamber at this very historic moment, and brings him to life in a very tangible way.”
“HAPPY IN THE CONFIRMATION OF OUR INDEPENDENCE AND SOVEREIGNTY, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction…” With these words, George Washington left behind his military authority, heading thankfully south for a Christmas at Mount Vernon. Once conservation is completed, the painting will be reunited with its restored frame and reinstalled in a place of honor in the State House along with other Washington artifacts including his personal draft of the resignation speech (acquired by the Maryland State Archives in 2007).
Before and After
Conservation of this grand work is nearly completed. On the newly cleaned surface, colors have taken on a new brightness and fresh details revealed. The sharp, dramatic outlines of Washington’s well-known features and caped uniform provide the dramatic focus in this celebration of one of Maryland’s most famous visits.
Want to know more?
For more on Washington Resigning his Commission and the historic event it portrays, visit the Maryland State House blog. For questions about art conservation, explore the American Institute for Conservation website or contact Artex’s conservation department.