The Phillips Collection Conservators Discover "New" Gifford Beal Painting
Left to right: Gifford Beal (1897-1956), On the Hudson at Newburgh, 1918, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.; Parade of Elephants, 1924, The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
In a rare turn of events, conservators at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. have discovered a complete, signed painting by American artist Gifford Beal that was hidden behind another canvas on the same stretcher for more than 75 years, The newly discovered oil-on-canvas work, depicting a woman with two children overlooking the Hudson River, is dated 1918 and was found beneath another Beal painting from the Phillips' permanent collection, Parade of Elephants (1924), during recent treatment in the museum's conservation studio.
Parade of Elephants was being cleaned and restored in preparation for its possible inclusion in The Phillips Collection's major exhibition opening September 25, 1999 Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips. The work hidden beneath, measuring approximately 36 x 58 inches, was discovered when Elizabeth Steele, Chief Conservator, The Phillips Collection, and Gillian Cook, Samuel H. Kress Foundation Advanced Intern in Paintings Conservation, were examining Parade of Elephants before beginning work on that canvas.
"It is every conservator's dream to find a painting hidden beneath another picture," said Elizabeth Steele. "These sorts of discoveries are usually made using sophisticated imaging techniques such as x-radiography or infrared reflectography. But in this case, Parade of Elephants was simply stretched over a second canvas, and the two only needed to be separated to reveal the concealed image."
"This is a wonderful discovery," confirms Eliza Rathbone, Chief Curator at The Phillips Collection. "It adds an entirely new dimension to our Beal holdings and gives us an opportunity to share with museum visitors vital aspects of our work - conservation and research - that happen behind the scenes." The discovered painting is currently on view alongside Parade of Elephants in the newly renovated second floor gallery at The Phillips Collection through August 1, 1999. Wall text tells the story of the discovery and discuss the "new" painting in the context of the Phillips' other Beal holdings.
The conservators' routine treatment of Parade of Elephants began by unframing the work and studying it under high magnification using a microscope and ultraviolet light. Their initial examination revealed that there were two canvasses attached to the stretcher, each with its own set of tacks. However, because double-stretched canvases were common and commercially available in the 19th century due to the preservation benefits provided by the secondary support fabric, it did not strike the conservators as unusual to see two layers of fabric.
Upon closer examination with the microscope, however, Gillian Cook discovered that the two fabrics had different weaves and were prepared with different ground layers. The top canvas was a double-weave linen with a cream-colored ground layer, and the bottom canvas was a single-weave fabric with a blue ground layer. This suggested that the two fabrics were not part of a commercially-prepared double-stretched canvas (in which the same fabric would have been used for both layers), but that the second canvas may have been used for another painting. Even with this in mind, the conservators did not expect to find a complete painting underneath: artists sometimes abandon unfinished works they are dissatisfied with and recycle the stretcher to support a new canvas.
Because the lower-right corner of Parade of Elephants had become slack and needed to be tightened on its stretcher, Cook removed several of the tacks holding the corner down. Curious, she lifted the top canvas and peeked underneath and to her surprise, discovered another fully painted area, along with the artists' signature and date.
"My heart leapt," Cook said. "This is something you never see. When I saw the signature, I knew it had to be a completed work."
Cook ordered another stretcher to be fabricated for Parade of Elephants so that it could be removed and re-stretched. Laying the painting face down on cushioned table, she removed the first row of tacks, releasing Parade of Elephants from the stretcher and leaving it flat on the table top. She then lifted the stretcher and exposed the hidden canvas for the first time in more than seven decades.
The "New" Painting
The newly discovered painting is a depiction of a woman and her two young children on the front porch of a house looking down a steep hillside toward a parade of soldiers, presumably either returning home or departing for service during the final months of World War I. In the distance is a wide river and tall hills. According to Kraushaar Galleries, Inc. in New York, which has carried Beal's work for much of this century and maintains the artist's archives, the setting is the Hudson River Valley. Beal's family owned a home in Newburgh, New York and he frequently painted there during the summers. The scene is strikingly similar to a Beal watercolor, Overlooking the Hudson (1916) owned by the Beal estate. The newly discovered work has been given the title On the Hudson at Newburgh by Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone.
The work adds a new element to The Phillips Collection's Beal holdings. Many of the museum's works depict common Beal subjects such as circus scenes, theater scenes, and scenes of men at work including fishermen hauling nets and men at sea. On the Hudson at Newburgh is unlike any other Beal owned by the museum. It is more sentimental and represents the subject of some of Beal's earliest successes - the Hudson River Valley landscape.
According to the conservators, the painting is in excellent condition, requiring no conservation work. Evidently covered up within six years of its being created, the work has been protected from light, air, dust, and grime for nearly its entire lifetime. The surface shows no cracks and there is no discoloration of the varnish that the artist applied. In contrast, Parade of Elephants required extensive cleaning to remove accumulated surface grime and areas of yellowish varnish.
Curators and conservators alike at The Phillips Collection have speculated about why the painting came to be covered up. Gillian Cook wonders whether the artist became dissatisfied with the work, thinking it too sentimental for his changing taste, and recycled the stretcher for a newer work. Eliza Rathbone speculated the artist simply "borrowed" the stretcher to support a new work temporarily, and later forgot that another painting was underneath. They are currently conducting research with Kraushaar Galleries to learn more about the history of the work. It surprises neither that the double painting was not discovered before now. In its frame, the two layers of canvas were not easily seen, and even if they were both noticed, it was not until examination with the microscope that their differences were revealed. In routine handling of the work for display or loan, the tell-tale signs would not have been detected.
The known history of Parade of Elephants provides few clues to the mystery. The work was acquired by The Phillips Collection in 1924, the year it was painted, from Kraushaar Galleries. In 1930, the museum loaned Parade of Elephants to the Venice Biennale, and this notation is the only marking on the back of the stretcher. Parade of Elephants was hung periodically at The Phillips Collection in the middle years of the century and was most recently loaned to the traveling exhibition, Center Ring: The Artist (An exhibition of Two Centuries of Circus Art), organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1981.
Gifford Beal (1897-1956) was a popular American painter in the first half of the 20th century whose work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
Gifford Beal had a special relationship with The Phillips Collection. He was the uncle of Marjorie Phillips, the artist wife of museum founder and collector Duncan Phillips, and was instrumental in their meeting. In 1921, Beal gave Marjorie a ticket to an exhibition of Duncan Phillips' collection at the Century Club in New York, and that is where the two first met. Over time, the museum acquired a strong collection of Beal's art, and now has more than 21 Beals, including works on paper, ranging from 1918 to 1954.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Gifford Beal began studying painting with William Merritt Chase when he was 12 years old. As a young man, he studied at the Art Students League in New York and later served as its president for a record 14 years (1916-1929). Beal had early successes, winning many painting and watercolor prizes; in 1914 he was elected to the National Academy of Design. The artist's subjects varied; some of his best known pictures are of holiday crowds, circus performers, and hunting and fisherman scenes. Beal also frequently painted the landscape along the Hudson River and in Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts where he spent many summers. His style was influenced by the Impressionists' use of light and color, as well as by modern approaches to line and form.
Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Phillips Collection.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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