The curious case of Maurice Prendergast, by paper conservation expert Antonio Alvarez

by leslierankowfinearts

IN OUR CONTINUING EXPLORATION OF THE HIGHLY TECHNICAL AND SENSITIVE TREATMENT AND RESTORATION OF WORKS ON PAPER, I HAVE ASKED TONY TO TELL US ABOUT AN OUTSTANDING WORK OF CONSERVATION THAT ALVAREZ FINE ARTS (www.alvarezfas.com)  WAS ABLE TO REALIZE. IT’S A WONDERFUL ART TALE AND I AM GLAD I ASKED! HERE IS THE HISTORY OF A SUPERB WORK BY PRENDERGAST, A CELEBRATED MEMBER OF THE AMERICAN SCHOOL IN GENERAL AND “THE EIGHT” IN PARTICULAR. THE MOST IMPRESSIONIST STYLISTICALLY OF THE GROUP, PRENDERGAST’S WATERCOLORS ARE AS ACCLAIMED, IF NOT EVEN MORE SO,  AS HIS OIL PAINTINGS. ONE OF MANY MEMORABLE EXHIBITIONS AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART IN 2000 DEEPENED MY APPRECIATION OF THIS ARTIST’S UNIQUE AND EXQUISITE HANDLING OF A DIFFICULT MEDIUM.

Almost twenty-five years ago, I was commissioned to evaluate a large collection of American and European works on paper in Boston for a very well-known collector. One work in particular struck me. It was an exquisite Maurice Prendergast watercolor of a promenade nearly three feet tall. Unfortunately, it had at some point been glued to a thick acidic paper-pulp board from edge to edge and was showing signs of discoloration and oxidation from contact with this mount. What is more, I could tell it was hung awfully close to a window and likely sat in the sun baking for hours a day. I told the owner that the piece should be removed from its acidic mount, cleaned properly and reframed with better materials but she would have none of it.  I finished the evaluation, made my recommendations and went back to New York.

Twenty years later, a client delivered a package containing a watercolor for evaluation and when we opened the package, I immediately recognized it as the Boston Prendergast. However, as I had predicted, the image had continued to darken and discolor and was, by this point, incredibly brittle and nearly impossible to read. It was indiscernible from a brown lunch bag — a shadow of what I remembered. I was amazed anyone would have bought it in that condition.

After extensive evaluation, and to the client’s disappointment, I decided that it would not be wise to proceed with any treatment and recommended reframing with archival material and UV glass. A few months later, it returned in the hands of another hopeful client. Apparently it had been sold to another gallery or collector who wished to improve upon it. I turned the work away again.

A few more months passed and my most important client called to let me know that he was sending something very important over for treatment. It was for a very prominent collector and he had convinced him to purchase the work with the promise that I would conserve the image. Of course when it arrived it was the infamous Prendergast again! This was a very difficult situation; although I was upset that my client would promise results before consulting me, I wanted to make him happy. Still, I had to acknowledge the risks involved in intervention and by this point it was clear there was no escaping the Prendergast- it was just going to keep coming back.

Finally, I agreed to the project and we began work. I removed the painting from its acidic mount and cleaned the paper with my heart in my throat. It was excruciating, slow work since the paper was as crispy as a Saltine and I had to proceed with extreme caution. Once cleaned, the watercolor was supported with an additional layer of mulberry tissue and flattened under weight. It was a marvelous transformation –  finally the colors could be read as they were intended.

Although it likely took years off my life and turned by hair gray prematurely, I am actually quite pleased that I finally agreed to the project because today the watercolor hangs in a very prominent museum in Boston where it will be safeguarded in perpetuity.

THANK YOU, TONY, FOR THE WONDERFUL HISTORY OF THIS WORK AND YOUR SALVATION OF ITS INTEGRITY AND BEAUTY. I AM VASTLY CURIOUS TO KNOW THE SUSPECTS BUT I PROMISE NOT TO ASK. NEXT WEEK LET’S LOOK, WITH YOUR EXPERT X-RAY VISION, ABOUT THE MARKET VALUE OF WORKS THAT HAVE UNDERGONE CONSERVATION AND THE DIRECTION AND EVOLUTION OF PAPER CONSERVATION AND RESTORATION AHEAD.