Murals Challenge Harvard Conservators

Battling years of grime with cotton swabs, gentle solvents and boundless patience, a group of Harvard conservators has begun restoring one of American painter John Singer Sargent’s most complex works.

Sargent’s “Triumph of Religion,” a 16 panel series of oil paintings covering a total of 2,100 square feet of wall and ceiling space at the Boston Public Library, presents a unique challenge to Harvard’s conservators because of its size and diverse materials.

With funding from the federal Institute of Museum Library Services, Harvard’s Straus Center for Conservation is working to restore both the paintings and sculptures of the library’s “Sargent Hall.” The work, which presents a history of Western religion, is expected to take 18 months to restore.

“We’re not just dealing with paintings. We are dealing with sculptures as well,” said Assistant Paintings Conservator Catherine S. Maurer.

Sargent Hall has sculptures extending up to 12 inches off of the canvas, and Sargent used glass, wood, metal and a variety of paints in creating the murals. Still, the workers say it’s worth the effort. “The Straus Center would bring this passion and enthusiasm to any project, but with this project, you are there where [Sargent] stood,” said Maurer. “That is exciting.”

According to Maurer, the library murals were one of Sargent’s favorite projects. He painted them on canvas in England, and upon completion they were rolled up and transported to the U.S. for hanging. Sargent began the project in 1890. The first panel was installed in 1895, and the project was more or less completed by 1919.

While Sargent preferred to work on the murals, his fame and demand as a portrait painter often got in the way of the project’s completion.

Plans for restoration began in 1999. The federal grant money kicked off the restoration efforts last summer. The first phase—now in progress—is the construction of an educational website that will report on the progression of the project. Then, Senior Conservation Scientist Narayan Khandekar and his staff plan to begin analysis of the thick layer of residue obscuring the paintings to determine exactly what was deposited in each portion of the painting. Paint chips smaller than a printed period were extracted from portions of the mural with the tip of a scalpel. The specks of paint are then mounted in resin, magnified 250 times and viewed using digital computer imaging.

A typical cross section might include a layer of primer that Sargent often used on his canvases, the layers of paint he used to create and recreate the painting and several layers of grime. Once a chemical analysis determines what substances are obscuring the paint, a solvent and cleaning method are chosen for each specific portion of the murals.

Discerning the difference between grime and what the artist meant as part of the painting—for example, a thin brown glaze—is crucial, said Khandekar.

The rest is grunt work. According to Maurer, it will take between 15 and 18 months to painstakingly rub away years of dust, air pollutants and smoke from the nearby Back Bay railroad, inch by inch, which cotton swabs and cleaning solutions.

Sargent, a prominent Boston artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, designed the entirety of Sargent Hall.

The bookcases, wall coverings and natural and artificial lighting—right down to the brass fixtures—were all designed by Sargent to enhance the experience of viewing “Triumph of Religion.” The restoration staff will also work to restore the lighting so that the murals may be viewed just as Sargent planned.