Posted: August 4, 2023
After a long restoration journey, the painting “Bandits” by Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) and its frame have returned to the art gallery of the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. Said to have been originally purchased from the Gallery of Prince Buonacorsi in Rome during the Aikens’ “grand tour” of Europe in the 1850s, this painting is now part of the Aiken-Rhett’s permanent collection. A small label discovered on the back of the frame also indicates that the painting was loaned to the city for the South Carolina and West Indian Exposition in Charleston in 1901.
This oil painting features three figures in military dress. An additional figure kneels in the foreground to collect water from a stream, which flows from a small waterfall, another figure on horseback can be seen to the right and all figures have swords or a lance. This prolific work, fully embodying Rosa’s artistic style, dates to ca. 1655. The frame is wood with plaster molding featuring an outer edge of acanthus leaves and dart motifs. Foundation staff do not believe this frame is original, however, it is the same frame that held “Bandits” when it was purchased by the Aikens in 1858.
Historic Charleston is devoted to conserving the paintings and frames in the Aiken-Rhett House Museum’s art gallery to the highest possible standard. In 2017, Valerie Perry, House Museum Manager, submitted a grant proposal to conserve the frame of Luther Terry’s “Romeo and Juliet”, also housed in the art gallery. To HCF’s delight, the grant was approved and since the beginning of the partnership, Eli Wilner & Company has restored the frames of “Romeo and Juliet” and the house’s copy of Raphael’s “Madonna della seggiola.”
In early 2022, we once again reached out to Eli Wilner about a frame restoration, this time for Rosa’s painting. “This painting is one of the most significant collection pieces in the house,” Valerie notes in the proposal. After a quick approval, both painting and frame left the Aiken-Rhett House to be restored in May of 2022. The painting was sent to Charleston-based art conservator Joanne Barry for cleaning and restoration work while the frame was sent to New York, to be restored by Eli Wilner.
After a trip across the ocean from Rome to Charleston and more than 160 years later, the frame suffered losses of gilt and gesso and was in desperate need of proper cleaning and repair. In progress reports, the team at Eli Wilner noted that their master carver recreated the areas of lost punchwork in the gesso while the finishing team worked to patch the gilding. While large portions of the original gilding were able to be retained, it was noted that extreme caution was necessary when handling.
While the frame was in New York, Joanne Barry worked carefully on cleaning and restoring the original oil painting. The first step of the project is a full examination of the artwork. Conservators use magnification, viewing the painting’s surface under a microscope at 50x magnification, as well as UV light examination. The conservator studied the surface conformation and created a written condition report to document all of the findings–including the history of the piece and the artist’s techniques of applying delicate paint and glaze layers. The painting was photo documented before treatment to record the many fine details of the painting.
Once the appropriate cleaning system was determined, the conservator began a meticulous cleaning – working very slowly revealing a quarter inch of the painting at a time with the custom cleaning solutions and hundreds of hand-rolled cotton swabs. Suddenly, the waterfall came into view and hidden shrubs were able to be distinguished once again. Colors became richer, brighter, and more vivid as decades of dirt was lifted away from the canvas. While cleaning works of art, conservators also work to consolidate flaking paint and work to secure as much of the original paint as possible. Small flakes are set back down using conservation adhesives and if needed, tiny dashes of reversible conservation colors (never oil paint) as the preservation of the original surface is of ultimate importance.
The Aiken-Rhett House Museum is open to the public for tours, daily. We would like to thank Joanne Barry and Eli Wilner & Company for their work, dedication, and support in our ongoing mission-driven work. For more information about Joanne Barry’s work, visit FineArtConservationCharleston.com For more information about Eli Wilner & Company, visit EliWilner.com