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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2018: Part I - Theodore Roosevelt Print

During June 2018, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2-week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the third year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The Foundation for the American Institute for Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The workshop taught in-depth methods of caring for many different types of collections. Participants gained insight into artifact conservation and the conditions that cause deterioration. After the workshop, several of the participants wrote blog entries about their experience and a specific aspect of the workshop.

Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with NYS Bureau of Historic Sites Furniture Conservator, David Bayne.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including  Kirsten Schoonmaker from Syracuse UniversityValentine Talland formerly of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Michelle Cornelison Smith, the Assistant Paper & Book Conservator at SF Art Conservation in Oakland, CA.

Part I in the series was written by one of this year's student participants, Meredith French.  Meredith has a BA in Studio Arts from Bard College and has spent nearly a decade working in screen printing and textile conservation in California.  She currently works in the San Francisco area at Chrysalis Art Conservation, a private conservation firm, where she focuses on textile conservation.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site has a vast and impressive collection of portraits. Some of the more prominent examples are large oil paintings celebrating members of Livingston family, especially relating to the house matron, Ruth Livingston Mills (1855-1920). However, a great many of the portraits in Staatsburgh's collection are framed prints on paper, celebrating men and women of historical significance. These portraits adorn the walls of many of the rooms where family and guests gathered, and the stairs and hallways they traveled.  The subjects of these portraits are people like political theorist and author, Edmund Burke, French commander of forces during the French and Indian War, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, and the notorious French military leader Napoleon. The advancements in printing technology that emerged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution allowed images to be rapidly reproduced in large quantities for newspapers, journals, magazines and books. Wandering through Staatsburgh, one can find mass-produced portraits made from a variety of printing techniques, such as lithography, photomechanical methods, and engravings. Some of these images were created from original art, while others were derived from pre-existing paintings and drawings. The majority of these framed portraits most likely came from books, periodicals, or other widely circulated publications.

Edmund Burke print located in a 2nd floor hallway at Staatsburgh

In the second floor hallway of Staatsburgh hangs an exceptional portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States.  His daughter, Alice, was a guest at Staatsburgh on several occasions, and a friend of the twin daughters of Ruth and Ogden Mills.

Theodore Roosevelt print in the hallway near a 2nd floor bedroom

At a glance, this framed print appears to be a close-up, bust-length photograph, showing Roosevelt gazing at the viewer. A source of light illuminates one side of his face while the other emerges from shadow, conveying an appearance of wisdom and experience. A closer look reveals that the image is actually an etching on paper made from a copperplate. Rather than the softly-blended tonalities of a photographic image, the chiaroscuro (light and shadow modeling) of the portrait is created with hatched lines, etched into the plate in patterns, more or less densely, to give the appearance of seamless depths and highlights. This print is so skillfully made that it challenges the viewer to find evidence of it being anything other than a photographic image.

A closer look at the Theodore Roosevelt print

This portrait was created by famed Hungarian portrait etcher Jacques Reich in 1919. Reich came to the United States in 1873 and after years of training in America and abroad, achieved recognition as a talented portrait artist. However, it wasn’t until the 1890’s that he turned to etching, which would be his primary creative medium for the remaining 25 years of his life.

1911 advertisement from The Dial Magazine, for Reich etched portraits of famous Americans
The Roosevelt image advertised here was likely another portrait Reich made of him.

An etching is traditionally made by applying a ground or resist to a copperplate, and then using a fine needle tool to draw the intended image onto the plate. When drawing the image into the plate, the ground is scraped away, exposing the raw metal beneath. The plate is then submerged in a mordant or acid bath which will consume the drawn exposed areas, “etching” the plate. Once the plate has been etched, the printer removes the ground and covers the plate in a carbon-based ink. The ink is wiped off of the surface of the plate by hand, but is retained in the etched recessions. Finally, the inked copperplate is put onto the bed of a printing press and a damp sheet of paper is rolled into the copperplate, creating a rich impression.

The signature of the etcher and evidence of the print's limited run.

By the time the Mills family renovated their mansion during the Gilded Age, the etching print method had existed for centuries and was no longer widely used for commercial or publishing purposes. Mass production of images could be accomplished efficiently by other print methods in large, multi-colored editions, available for wide consumption. It is this fact that makes the Roosevelt etching at Staatsburgh notable. The time-consuming process of etching became the purview of the discerning art patron. Staatsburgh's print is one of 25 artist proofs, meaning that it was created in a limited run and intended to be appreciated by the perceptive art collector. Reich drew the image, etched the plate, and printed it himself, carrying on a centuries-old tradition of craftsmanship and masterful skill. This piece, like many in the Staatsburgh collection, shows the sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities of the Mills family.

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