Five for Friday: Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio
Your gallery specializes in American Impressionism as well as fine art with ties to Pennsylvania. This includes Pennsylvania Impressionists, the Philadelphia Ten, and painters from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Please tell our readers how your interest in these categories came about, and what makes these types of paintings so interesting and noteworthy.
Paul Gratz, Owner and head conservator, Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio:
My interest in Pennsylvania and American Art started when I studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1980s. As a student there, I would sneak up into the museum at lunchtime and study the works of American artists Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931), Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924), Edward Redfield (1869-1965), Daniel Garber (1880-1958), and others. They were inspiring to me. The New Hope School was very close to where I lived, so I could relate to the paintings. What makes these works so personally interesting is that they use architectural elements and figures in the compositions. Many other American Schools paint only landscapes; those tend to be tedious to me.
The most influential artist to my career was Jamie Wyeth (American, 1946- ). I saw an exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum and discovered Wyeth’s portrait of John F. Kennedy there. I was so taken by the work; it was a feeling I will never forget. And I knew then and there that I wanted to spend my life in the world of art.
In addition to buying and selling fine art, your company offers conservation services. Is conservation the same as restoration? In terms of conservation – what exactly is it, what techniques are used, and what type of training or experience is needed to do the job?
The terms “restoration” and “conservation” are used often in the treatment of art. They are different things. Conservation – for the most part – is a minimalist approach, focusing on less is more. It attempts to keep as much of the original artwork as possible, and all materials used should be reversible.
Restoration is a bit of a more heavy-handed approach, where perhaps the artwork is too damaged or someone may not be as restrained in their efforts in handling it. Conservators are trained either through academic training, such as the three-year master’s degree program offered through the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware or by traditional apprenticeships.
In reference to fine art, what condition issues can be fixed or stabilized with conservation, and which can’t?
Most physical or environmental damage to oil paintings can be remedied. Issues including torn canvases, water damage, and cupping (paint cracking, flaking, and losses) can be treated through the lining on a vacuum pressure hot table. In centuries past, wax, glue, and pasta lining prevailed. Today, a thermoplastic adhesive called Beva 371 is used. Reversing PVA linings (polyvinyl acetate, a synthetic adhesive) is not possible and oxidation over paint presents the hardest conservation challenges.
For the most part, does professional conservation add, subtract, or have no appreciable difference in the “value” of a piece of fine art?
Conservation treatments, performed correctly, can increase the value of an oil painting. Years of dirt and discolored varnish can obscure the original palette and brush strokes. Cleaning and varnish can reveal the true expression of the artist.
What was the most difficult conservation project you’ve managed, and what made it so challenging? Which project was the most personally satisfying?
The most difficult task of any conservator is reversing previous bad restorations. Recently, I tackled a seascape by Howard Russell Butler (American, 1856-1934), the founder of the American Fine Arts Society. We cleaned the layers of dirt and discolored varnish only to find that someone had overpainted the entire sky. The paint layer was heavily abraded by an untrained hand and hardly anything was left of the original. We ended up having to basically create a new painting.
Conservation work can be greatly satisfying. I was given a portrait of Queen Victoria by Thomas Sully (American, 1783-1872) to treat. Years of dirt and discolored varnish made the painting dark and dingy. After careful examination and tests under high magnification, we removed the dirt and varnish. Over 60% of the original paint layer had been overpainted. We successfully removed all but 5% of the in-paint. When the old lining was removed, we discovered the artist’s monogram on the reverse of the canvas, confirming the authenticity of the painting! The painting went on to be included in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio is located at 5230 Silo Hill Road, Doylestown, PA 18902. In business since 2000, the company also offers fine art appraisals, consultations, and professional collection management services. Owner and head conservator Paul Gratz is an authority on work by the New Hope Circle of painters. For more information, please visit their website.