An Unreported Tragedy, Picasso’s Warning, a Dog That Didn’t Bark, Fried Peaches and Coloured Cleaning Swabs: The Sheldon Kecks’ Unexamined Restoration of ‘The Luncheon of the Boating Party’ – The Phillips Collection’s Fabled Renoir
ArtWatch UK has always pressed for access to picture restoration records and photographs, without which evaluation and criticism are greatly hampered. Reports of restoration treatments are of great value but are invariably written by the restorers themselves. More valuable are photographs taken before, during, and after restorations. These are (within the limitations of the medium) effectively disinterested. Being simple mechanical records of how much light was reflected from a particular surface at a given moment, they permit like to be compared with like. As such they are indispensable because, after a restoration, only the post-treatment picture survives – and that can never be compared directly with its previous self which no longer exists having been supplanted by the newly altered self. This is why restorers’ claims to work in “reversible” manners are specious – going back is never an option. (Leaving alone, however, almost always is.)
For the past five years the most forthcoming institution by far has been the National Gallery in London (see right). In contrast, the Neue Galerie in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington DC have ignored all requests for information. Our chief interest at the Phillips concerns Renoir’s great work of 1881, the “Luncheon of the Boating Party” which was bought in 1923 for a then massive $125,000. That museum’s continuing silence masks a long-running controversy that goes to the heart of twentieth century restoration practices.
In May 1983 Sheldon Keck, a leading American restorer, delivered a defence of picture restorers (“Some Picture Cleaning Controversies: Past and Present”) to the American Institute of Conservators. It contained an anecdote that reflected extremely well on himself and his restorer wife, Caroline:
“In the 1950s, Mrs Keck and I attended a dinner party where an internationally known British connoisseur attacked the cleaning of paintings in general insisting that artists counted on the mellowing effects of time to enhance the harmony of their designs and colours… One of the other guests inquired whether the gentleman had viewed the Phillips Collection’s Renoir ‘Boating Party’ since it had been cleaned (by us, as most of those around the table knew). ‘It is ruined’, he said, ‘ruined…the harmony of the whole has been destroyed, the glazes have all been stripped away…I stood in front of it and I wept.’ Defence was undertaken by Mrs Keck and if she may have exceeded normal dinner party proprieties, her statements were eminently accurate. We had photographically documented the painting, even made a color movie of our cleaning, and every solvent swab used on the surface had been saved in large jars.
Later that same year I accompanied this painting along with others to Paris for display in the ‘De David à Toulouse-Lautrec’ exhibition at the Orangerie. I had opportunity to show our film of the cleaning to an audience which included Renoir’s son. Afterward, he came up to me to tell me how much the painting now looked as he recalled it from his childhood and that to the best of his knowledge his father never varnished his own paintings.“
This self-celebration seemed consistent with a memoir on Duncan Phillip’s by his widow, Marjorie, in her 1970 book “Duncan Phillips and His Collection”:
“Duncan often spoke of the terrible day when he had two necessary and immediate decisions pending. One was whether to have the great Renoir ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ relined and the other was whether to operate on the poodle ‘C’est Tout,’ who had swallowed part of a rubber elephant and become critically ill when it swelled up inside of him. What a day! But when the ‘go-aheads’ were given, Dr Curry, a wonderful veterinary surgeon, operated on the dog successfully, and the Sheldon Kecks, outstanding restorers, ‘operated on the Renoir successfully!’”
However, in 2000 the former Time magazine art editor, Alexander Eliot, recalled (“A Conversation About Conservation”, The World & I Journal, June 2000) dropping in to the Phillips Collection in the mid fifties:
“…to revisit an especially beloved image: Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’. I found that this sunnily celebratory masterpiece had been moved from its central position to a dark side room, as if in shame, and I could easily understand why. Its blossomy colours appeared dried out, droopy and half-awry. The seated figure in the foreground had been reduced to corpse grey. Barging angrily into Duncan Phillips’ office, I asked for an explanation. Tears misted the sensitive old gentleman’s eyes. ‘Well,’ he told me mournfully, ‘I sent the picture to our mutual friends – you know the restorers I mean. The best in the business, right?’ Mr Phillips paused to wave an imaginary fly. ‘I’d asked them to iron out a small blister on the surface and then forward the canvas to Paris for a major exhibition at the Louvre. Deciding that my prize acquisition required cleaning, they went ahead with that. The people at the Louvre at first refused to accept the resultant ruin as a Renoir! Fortunately we were able to put them straight because our friends had taken the precaution of filming their work on the canvas. I have a copy of the film, which you’re welcome to view. In it you’ll notice actual colour-stains coming off on the cotton swabs. But please, for God’s sake, don’t report this tragedy. It’s too dreadful.’ ”
Although Mrs Phillips spoke of a lining, not a cleaning, owners of pictures with blisters are often advised that lining with an additional canvas is needed to prevent the disintegration of paint and that cleaning is essential to this “cure”. Few owners openly admit injury to their own works, but lining is today widely recognised as an intrinsically dangerous combination of heat and pressure in which glazes get melted, brushwork gets flattened and pictorial values get irreversibly corrupted by invasive adhesives.
Faced with starkly contradictory testimonies and an institutional black-out of technical information, how might the conscientious art lover judge between such conflicting experts? As it happens, the scales can be weighted further. In 1983, even as they crowed about their past handiwork, the Kecks’ made a disastrous entry into a live restoration controversy. On the 16th of June The New York Review of Books carried an essay (“Crimes Against the Cubists”) by the British art historian John Richardson. It began:
“When I complimented William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art on the brilliant choice of Cubist works in the Picasso show… I felt obliged to hint that… MOMA was killing its Cubist paintings… The varnished surface of one masterpiece after another testified more to a desire to embellish than to any understanding of what Picasso intended…‘To subject these delicate grounds to wax relining and, worse, a shine,’ I concluded, ‘is as much of a solecism as frying a peach.’ “Much to my relief, William Rubin agreed… Many of MOMA’s paintings, he readily admitted, had suffered from overzealous restoration…before his time [1973-1988], and before his eyes had been opened to these abuses by no less an authority than Picasso…[who] after pointing out the error of varnishing a Cézanne… took the opportunity of insisting that Cubist paintings were even more vulnerable in this respect…”
Mrs Keck responded in the NYRB of 13 October 1983 with an abusive, defensive, evasive and utterly self-defeating letter. She declared herself “unacquainted” with the art historian, expressed curiosity about his age and scepticism about his familiarity with Braque, Picasso and Miss Toklas. He, she alleged, “blows his top as indiscriminately as a tornado.” Judging herself possessed of a “personal competence…in the preservation of Modern paintings”, she dismissed the historian as “not very knowledgeable” about the material components of paintings and “not at all familiar with the processes of competent restoration.”
She offered a raft of defences for the restorers who had damaged cubist paintings. They were “not alone in lacking the special comprehension needed to retain cubist textual values” because “knowledge of this particular exigency does not seem to have been prevalent among dealers, curators, art historians or owners”. She held that “Not all painters are interested in whether their pictures will last”; that few understand their own materials; that pictures consist of materials that “do not want to stick together”. And, that while “not every painting may safely be cleaned”, every picture determines its own treatment and every restorer is a painting’s “intimate friend [whose] tender loving care” provides an “individually tailored bridge to the future.”
She did not acknowledge that she and her husband had helped found MOMA’s conservation department, trained many of its staff, and were consultants to the museum. She did cite her own restoration of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting but – incredibly – it was one in which she had deliberately rubbed off original paint:
“Once when I was removing a layer of blackened filth from a crisp scene of New York under Miss O’Keeffe’s sharp observation, I showed her where my swab came away with a trace of cadmium yellow as well as dirt. Go right ahead, she directed, the area was pure colour and she far preferred to lose a top skin of yellow than permit her painting to be spotted all over with soot.”
John Richardson delighted in having “drawn Mrs Keck’s fire…since her name stands for the practices my article deplored… ” and in having his own worst fears confirmed by her persistence in “disregarding the Cubists avowed intentions: no varnish in any circumstances.” Rebutting her slur that his contact with Picasso had been “cursory”, he disclosed constant and close contact for over ten years during which he had often heard the artist “inveigh against the iniquities of American restoration at a period when the Kecks were leading the pack”. On her self-disclosed cleaning method, he reflected “I would have thought that, on the evidence of her own words, Mrs Keck might set up shop in a television studio, where her colourful swabs could be shown to scour paint more effectively than ‘the other brand.’ ”
That the great Phillips Renoir has suffered from solvent-laden swabs is demonstrable today. Examination of the dark blue drapery of the young woman in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture shows that dissolved red paint from her (now smeared) costume’s trim has been rubbed into the paint cracks like coloured ink on an etched plate. Renoir could not have rubbed dissolved paint into age cracks on his own fresh paint – so who else might have? Nor was it he who smeared the red stripes on the awning. Why, then, will the Phillips permit no-one to view the film of which Sheldon Keck boasted but of which Duncan Phillips himself spoke so remorsefully?
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