To Restore a 169-Year-Old, 350-Foot Long Painting, St. Louis Conservators Painted Over It

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Before restoration (below) and after (above). - SLAM
  • SLAM
  • Before restoration (below) and after (above).

The St. Louis Art Museum is a temple to the fight against time — fights that museum conservators often decide are best left lost. Throughout the galleries of ancient art, visitors pass endless examples of cracked pottery, discolored idols and all manner of headless, legless and armless statues.

But in the vast sculpture hall at the center of the museum, conservators are waging an uncommonly aggressive campaign against the ravages of time, all to save what could be described as 1850's version of a movie: a painted "panorama" composed of 25 panels that is spooled, like a scroll, through two huge wooden rollers literally, a moving picture.

It is no small undertaking. In total, "Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley" stretches 350 feet long. Each panel is seven-and-a-half feet tall. According to the museum, it is the only known Mississippi panorama still in existence.

And now, after eight years of work, its restoration is nearly complete.



On a recent visit, Hugh Shockey, the museum's head of conservation, observes a three-person team working on one of panorama's final panels, No. 17. In 2011, after more than a century of use and storage, the panel's once-placid river scene had been covered by crisscrossing white patches where the paint had worn off, leaving the image in something of a blizzard.

"This panel is in the worst state of them," Shockey says of No. 17. "This painting did not really stand up to the rolling action."

Conservator Corrine Long. - DANNY WICNETOWKI
  • DANNY WICNETOWKI
  • Conservator Corrine Long.

That's the other trouble with art conservation — a lot of times, the artists themselves chose materials that quickened a work's demise. In the case of the panorama, artist John J. Egan had been commissioned by an amateur archaeologist, who planned to use the panorama to assist in extolling the tales of his discoveries along the Mississippi.

Egan, in turn, produced a series of scenes painted on canvas and stitched together to form a visual tour down the great river. However, the paint he used did not sit well with the continuous rolling and unrolling.

Today, the panorama is technically functional, but "it takes about ten people and half-an-hour to move one scene to another," says Shockey.

But it is not the panorama's functionality that motivated the museum to begin a monumental effort to restore it. For Shockey, the question over what to do with a 350-foot-long theater backdrop is not about its value as an artifact of an archaic form of entertainment, but as a uniquely impressive work of art.

Shockey, though, adds an important clarification regarding the three people with paint brushes attending to the panorama's panel No. 17.

"These are conservators, not artists," he notes. "Let's not confuse the two."

Conservators restoring Panel No. 17 of the massive panorama. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Conservators restoring Panel No. 17 of the massive panorama.

Shockey isn't trying to insult the work of the people balanced on stepladders, who spend hours peering at the areas where there were once happy little trees or clouds. After carefully descending from her perch, one of those people, Corrine Long, explains, simply: "We aren't artists because we aren't inventing anything."

Long, an art conservation student attending Queen's University in Ontario, Canada, is working on an upper section of the panel that had once displayed a pale blue sky and the autumn foliage of a tree in the foreground. When she first got to work, it looked like a clump of white.

But up close, she found, there were "a couple chips of dark green, a blue, a red" — and these tiny flecks of color were enough to reconstruct the palate of what was lost. Here is where the "ethical" part of art conservation comes into play. It's why Long and Shockey go out of their way to distinguish between the work of an artist and the labor of a conservator.

If the museum wanted, for instance, it could ask Long to repaint those leaves brush stroke by brush stroke. That's not what she's doing here.

"Instead of trying to understand what kind of leaves were there, I just use these broad colors of green and blue found in the surrounding area to knock it back, to make it blend with the background." she explains. "You don’t see distinct leaves there, it just hides the fact that there was a lot of paint loss in that area."

It is a technique that seems to attempt the impossible and contradictory: Replace what was lost, but without adding anything to the painting itself.

DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
And yet, where there was once an unsightly splotch of white, the spot on the panel Long worked on now shows a mottle of colors, expertly applied in a way that, when seen from a distance — this is, after all, a scene intended to be viewed in a theater — looks to be completely natural with the surrounding.

For Long and the other conservators, the work may sound almost mechanical and uncreative. But she says she feels a connection with the original artist and assistants who first worked on the gargantuan project. With her face inches from the surface, she can see into the mind of the artist John J. Egan. It teaches her things. She believes she's figured out how Egan ordered his assistants to apply the panel's layer structure: first the background, then the trees, then the mountain.

With the conservation project nearly over, people can finally see Egan's mostly-original mountains though the mostly-original trees, and they won't be distracted the worn-down evidence of its long use as a backdrop.

And yet, without its blizzard of paintless splotches, it is no longer a purely historical artifact. Its surface no longer presents an immediate reflection of its rolling path through the decades.

What is gone is, indeed, gone. But with skilled application of paint, Long and the other conservators can can make the loss disappear.

"I think it’s an ethical question," Long says. "We don’t want to put something that the artist didn’t put there himself. The important part is to document it and not pretend this isn’t damaged."

With just one panel left to restore — No. 21, which was in far better condition than No. 17 — the work of nearly a decade is coming to a close. For the museum, it represents the chance for future visitors to appreciate the artistry that went into the original piece.

True, something has been lost. The monumental work is not exactly as monumental Egan first painted it. But to paraphrase Futurama, if your art conservation is done right — and as long as your audience isn't using a UV light — nobody will notice you've done anything at all.

DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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