Visitors to Pilgrim Hall Museum have, since the beginning of April, been able to witness a once-in-a-lifetime art conservation project. Thanks to funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and other private donors, the largest painting at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Henry Sargent’s Landing of the Pilgrims, is currently undergoing a tremendous restoration process. The painting has been the centerpiece of Pilgrim Hall since the building opened in 1824. The three month project, considered the largest painting restoration project in the South Shore region’s history, has an anticipated completion date of June 14. All conservation work is being done on site in the main hall of the museum, offering an opportunity for the public to view every step of the process.
At 13 by 16 feet, The Landing of the Pilgrims is one of the America’s first monumental paintings and one of the earliest efforts to depict a key moment in the history of what was then a new nation on a grand scale. The painting played a role in establishing the Pilgrims as “forefathers” of America and the landing a central story in the greater narrative of the founding of the United States. In doing so, Sargent contributed to the creation of a national identity. Once the restoration is completed, the early American masterwork will appear as the artist meant it to appear and will be better preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.
Securing funding has taken more than seven years with multiple grant applications and was finally achieved through a $215,000 appropriation by the Commonwealth in 2014. As Senate President Therese Murray remarked, “This painting is a very special piece of American history, and of Pilgrim Hall Museum’s history as well. Not only does it tell an important story about the Pilgrims, but also of our common heritage as Americans. We need to make sure it is restored and preserved in time for the town’s 400th anniversary in 2020, when millions of visitors will be coming to Plymouth and Massachusetts from all over the world to celebrate this momentous occasion.”
The Landing of the Pilgrims features a massive ornate frame by John Doggett, a renowned 19th century Boston frame maker, and has been on display in Pilgrim Hall Museum since the building opened in 1824. The painter, Henry Sargent, was a Massachusetts native and completed the painting between 1818 and 1823, originally placing it at Pilgrim Hall on loan. He donated the painting to the museum in 1834. Sargent’s treasured works are found in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His paintings are noted for their influence by Dutch masters, visible in his use of atmospheric lighting.
The Landing has hung for 191 years on the east wall of Pilgrim Hall Museum’s main hall, which was first climate controlled in 2008. Subjected to heat, humidity, soot, dirt, smoke and salt air over the years, the canvas became darkened and soiled. Additionally, the canvas exhibited typical destabilization and some loss of paint in certain areas.
Olin Conservation Inc. of Great Falls, Virginia, one of the nation’s leading painting conservation companies, has been brought on board to conduct the conservation project. The company is also one of the few that has such extensive experience restoring large scale murals and paintings. Chief Conservator David Olin has more than thirty years of conservation experience and has overseen more than fifty major conservation projects including artwork at the U.S. Capitol building, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Archives, the City of New York and the State of Maryland among many other institutions and private collections. Olin Conservation’s largest project was the Gettysburg Cyclorama, 377 feet long by 42 feet high and weighing 12.5 tons, which they conserved from 2003 to 2008 for the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.
Gold Leaf Studio of Washington D.C., handling the conservation of the frame, was founded in 1982 and specializes in historic frame conservation, restoration, and the intricate art of gilding. Gold Leaf Studio’s William Adair is a frame conservator, frame historian and master gilder with more than forty years of experience. He has also curated exhibits on historic frames. Gold Leaf Studio’s clients have included private collectors, museums, galleries, historic homes, universities, government agencies and architectural and interior design firms.
The removal of the Landing from the wall took place on April 4 with testing and assessment immediately following. The painting, front and back, was found to be in generally good condition for artwork of its age—although it was exceedingly dirty. Cleaning of the painting began during the first week of the project and immediately revealed striking color and detail. Brown, muddy sky became blue with grey clouds and a hint of yellow sunlight. What appeared to be dirt upon which the figures stood once again showed to be white snow. The cleaning exposed previously obscured brushwork providing a sense of texture on clothing and other surfaces. Perhaps most striking, the detail that Sargent had put into various faces of the Pilgrims became clear after many, many decades.
Conservation of the frame has required the removal of bronze paint that was applied more than a century ago to hide wear to the original gilding. Over time, the paint has turned brown. Repairs to the structure of the frame and gesso ornamentation, replacing and filling in any areas of loss or damage, followed. The entire frame is now in the process of being re-gilded.
Following the cleaning of the painting itself, structural work began on the canvas, first with the infusion of the back of the canvas with an adhesive which significantly reduced cracking and cupping of destabilized paint. The infusion also gave the canvas new flexibility. A nylon backing to strengthen the canvas was painstakingly applied using hand irons and presses. Finally, a new canvas edge was adhered to the back to provide grip and strength for re-stretching. The painting was re-stretched on its original stretcher on May 1. In early June, the final phases of the project will commence with further cleaning, in-painting, varnishing, final work to the frame and, on June 14, re-hanging the painting.
To provide some insight “behind the scenes,” Pilgrim Hall Museum hosted a reception on April 27 featuring remarks from both conservators regarding the process up to that point and the work remaining to be done. Attendance was tremendous. In addressing those gathered, David Olin remarked, “We’ve worked at some really incredible venues and we’ve worked for some really important people, but very seldom do we find a group of people as enthusiastic for what we’re actually doing—the process, not the schedule. So, we really want to applaud the museum staff, the museum board and everyone who has expressed such a great amount of interest in our work.”
There will be another reception to celebrate the unveiling of the newly restored painting, and another opportunity to hear from the conservators, on Sunday, June 14, from 4 to 6 p.m. Information on admission and registration will be posted soon on http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org and on this site.