A New Life for Civil War Veteran AP Burchfield

Alba Art Conservation was honored to be chosen for the treatment of a 1910 portrait of Civil War veteran AP Burchfield for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.

The Soldiers and Sailors memorial hall "was built to recognize the sacrifice, valor and patriotism of the Civil War Veterans of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania". Today, the museum boasts an extensive collection of Civil War era materials and the Memorial honors men and women of all branches of the U.S. military. For information about this local institution please visit: http://soldiersandsailorshall.org/about-us/

Burchfield was a member of Company E, 123rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment, enlisting on August 8th, 1862 in Allegheny City and was promoted to sergeant on April 10th, 1863.  Following the war, Burchfield was the first president of the Memorial Association, who conceived of the memorial hall and its construction.  He died before the official opening of Soldiers and Sailors.  The opening ceremony is depicted in the photograph (right), where his portrait hangs as tribute. 

During the initial assessment of the painting, the portrait immediately stood out in the artist's attention to detail and careful modelling of the subject's face.  The general is depicted over a warm, deep earth colored background.  The warmth complements the natural rosiness to his face and contrasts the cool shadows that help create the three-dimensionality of the subject.

The painting exhibited two tears in the lower left corner, one straight and the other compound (branched).  The painting also exhibited a discolored, very oxidized varnish layer that had been applied to the surface while the painting was framed. 

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh,  PA.  Image courtesy of WESA.

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh,  PA.  Image courtesy of WESA.

The photograph was taken during the 1910 dedication ceremony on opening day.  A portrait of Burchfield is visible top, center.  Image courtesy of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum


The before treatment image of Burchfield showing two tears in the lower left quadrant in addition to an exceptionally discolored varnish layer.

The image on the left (above) is a detail photograph of the two tears in the lower left quadrant.  The image on the right is a photograph taken under ultraviolet radiation.  Resin varnishes have a unique fluorescence when induced with ultraviolet radiation.  The area of non-fluorescence in the lower left corner indicates the beginning of the varnish removal.  His face is much less fluorescent than the surrounding area, suggesting a previous attempt to remove the varnish in the detailed facial area.  A non-florescent border visible around the perimeter indicates the area protected from the varnish application by the frame rabbet.

The treatment began with the stabilization, humidification and mending of the tears in the lower left corner. Once they were stabilized, the varnish removal could progress.

The highly oxidized varnish proved only slightly soluble to solvent solution and solvent gel solutions.  Mechanical removal proved to be the safest and most efficient way to remove the coating evenly and without damaging the paint beneath.  This type of removal was only possible due to a heavy layer of soot between the varnish and paint surface.  The soot allowed for delamination of the varnish as the dirt acted as a barrier layer. I need to emphasize to not try this at home as this is a unique case and attempts at mechanical varnish removal may result in great damage.  Much of the varnish removal proved to be exceptionally tedious and was done under a microscope, especially in the facial area where the varnish had been previously thinned.

This is a detail shot of the mechanical removal of the varnish layer. 

This is a detail shot of the mechanical removal of the varnish layer. 

Below is a during treatment shot of the portrait, with the varnish removed from the left half of the painting.  Suprisingly, the cleaning of the lower left quadrant revealed the artist's original signature.  "Charles Walz, 1910" was inscribed onto the surface using a sharp implement.

Following removal of the varnish, the remaining soot and varnish residues were cleaned from the surface and the painting and the losses associated with tears could be filled and inpainted. The painting was varnished with a reversible, light stabilized synthetic resin to regain the saturation of the dark colors in the coat and background.  The saturation of the portrait also renewed the artist intended contrasts between the figure and the background as well as the shadows in the subject's face.  The two images below show the painting before (left) and after (right) treatment. 

I am very happy with the results of the treatment and proud to be working with such a great local institution and Pittsburgh gem. The work was funded by a grant from the Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation (Hillman Family Foundation).  Thanks also to Michael Kraus, curator, for background information.