Writing About Art

Entry by: Greg Leatherman

5th June 2015
The Alchemy of Restoration

Bad writing has a good deal in common with a dirty painting. Sometimes, the text merely needs proofreading, which is the art restorer's equivalent of a light cleaning. Other times, an article may need a comprehensive copy-edit, which is like in-painting. A complete overall may even be required, which is the equivalent of repairing gashes across a tattered canvas. No matter the level of restoration required, however, the best repairs retain the original vision of the artist.

But what if the original vision is a mystery?

Art restorers remove dirt, repair a ripped canvas, or fix a broken frame, but even then, the artist’s true vision is not always revealed. Inspiration may remain obscured beneath the veneer of time. And because of this, when a previously unknown painting is restored, the restorer participates in the creative act. It's personal. It's visceral. And it can even come to represent a bit of inspiration from one's own life.

I’d been out of Kate’s life for two decades when she took my call. She didn’t trust me, because back when she was a fledgling painter and I was a journal-toting novice, I had cheated on her. Now we were in our mid-forties and a thousand miles apart. Nonetheless, we talked every day, and a few months later, we were flying between Pittsburgh and Palm Beach.

On one such visit, while walking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, Kate narrated our tour. There was a frame designed by Stanford White, the architect, she explained; and there was a portrait of the same; and there was Beckwith’s portrait of the chorus girl who brought Stanford White down.

“The man who killed White was her husband,” she explained. “A jealous millionaire from Pittsburgh. That's what you get when you carouse with chorus girls.”

She knew stories behind every piece, from delicate Japanese prints to stunning stone sculpture, so that by the time we stood in front of Sargent’s Portrait of a Boy, a dozen patrons were following my angular blonde. They were enraptured, because Kate’s love for art is not only contagious, but she is strikingly beautiful, and a born teacher; and in spite of the mistakes I made two decades ago, she remains the only woman I have truly loved.

I had to convince her my heart was true, that I had matured, that she was the only woman that mattered. But there was a problem: one of us had to move.

In spite of all this, our relationship was carefully being restored. We talked every night, and though email did not exist when we first met, we were at it daily. Most long-distance couples attach shots of their faces – even boudoir shots – but Kate attached her portfolio, including photos of her restoration work.

Surprisingly, because of my literary background, I was often able to add tidbits that augmented what Kate surmised. Most satisfactorily, I had solved the subject of a large work by an unknown painter. Kate sent a half-n-half photo of her cleaning and I recognized the piece as the Wolf’s Glenn scene from Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. Kate shared my observations with her boss and he presented it to the painting's owner, who now had more than a decoration for his foyer—he had a conversation piece with an operatic soundtrack.

A week later, Kate sent a dark photo of a strange old painting.

“The owner doesn’t know anything about it," she wrote. "I can tell it’s 18th century from the frame and the condition, but it’s not signed anywhere and the subject matter is puzzling, to say the least.”

“What does your boss think?” I asked over the phone.

"Reynaud doesn’t care what the painting is about. He doesn’t even care who painted it unless it’s someone famous. As far as he’s concerned, he quoted a price and got half the payment. Now he needs me to finish restoring it so he can collect the rest. I took some educated guesses, but he just snapped at me to get back to work.”

“How can he not care about the subject matter?”

“A lot of people don’t, Greg. For most collectors, what makes art interesting is its price.”

I knew she was right, but I added, “Even if he doesn’t care, I am sure his customers would love to know more. Wouldn’t knowing the context of the art increase the value?”

“Sure, if they hear it is by some renowned painter, then they will say that it is sublime, no matter the condition or whether or not it is even any good. Few of them have any idea what really makes a picture valuable, and Rey doesn’t have the patience to do that sort of thing. Sometimes I do the research on my own, but even then, he just thinks I am being arrogant. I’ve been in this business for forty years and I don’t need anyone to tell me how to do things.”


“We cleaned a 17th century ancestral portrait that was terribly damaged. One of the eyes was completely out. So he told me to repaint the eye. I started flipping through catalogues and art history books trying to find a painting in the same style with similar lighting and from a similar angle, so I could get it right, and he started huffing around the studio talking about how much money I was costing him.”

“How sad.”

“Cash flow,” he likes to say. “Why I can tell you exactly what I will make for the next six months. Exactly what I will make!”

A panting confronts the viewer all at once, but when this one arrived, it was so dark that she couldn't recognize anything. It had survived in some dark hall until quite recently, when it was discovered by an amateur collector. Now, the paint was dark with mildew and dust.

Kate sent photos of her progress daily. The first thing we saw, as the scene was revealed, was the Devil, perched upon an altar and playing bagpipes. Below him, in what appeared to be a decaying church, was a woman dancing wildly in her bedclothes.

The horned god is often depicted, not only playing an instrument, but mastering it. In blues lore, for instance, the devil plays slide so well that men sell their souls just to have him tune their guitars. The Greek god Pan has a flute named after his musical prowess and satyrs entice nymphs using a lyre. But what was this artist trying to say? Did the painter document some obscure cult, like Francisco de Goya's Witches Sabbat, which shows the Devil surrounded by witches? Kate thought that unlikely. Perhaps it was someone attempting to discredit an enemy sect, such as was done to early Protestants by portraying them as devil worshipping heathens. It was a possibility, but we would have to see more.

Kate was careful. As a restorer, she understood the canvas, frame, and painted pigments in terms of their chemical and physical reaction to her methods. It was vital that anything she did was reversible, as we hoped the passage of time would prove to be.

There were also a lot of questions. Was the style of dress contemporary with the artist, or did it belong to an earlier time? Was the scene purely a product of the artist’s imagination, or did it document of some remembered event?

As she uncovered more, there were breakthroughs. What at first looked like a loaf of bread held by the female dancer turned out to be the arm of another woman. A few days later, there were nine dancers, both men and women, plus a small demon, all gyrating wildly in the center of the painting. In fact, it seemed the more Kate uncovered, the more she was reminded of my own carousing. I defended myself, promising to move to Florida in a few short months, but she grew more and more distant as each detail was revealed.

Luckily, the painting had not been restored before. Kate explained that many restorers used to "fix" the edges of old painting by simply painting the marginal details black. This one had never been touched, but she knew it was post Renaissance, when many painters made a living illustrating well-known poems, operas, or myth.

I began looking not only at the characters in the scene, but at how they were presented, and at everything Kate uncovered in the margins of the painting. This approach provided me with the clues necessary to form a cohesive story. Indeed, the details were fascinating, if gruesome. Around the edges of the room, against the walls, were propped several corpses, with burning torches held in their dead hands. Also, a number of dead bodies, including infants, cluttered the scene, while rats, snakes, bats, human hearts, and discarded skulls littered the floor.

I did not know what it all meant, but I knew this: the meaning of the painting could not be discovered by simply calling it a midnight mass or gathering of witches, any more than the my intentions toward Kate could be determined from one solitary mistake two decades ago. I would have to look in the margins, at the most revolting details.

Finally, Kate finished cleaning the painting. On the far left of the canvas, came a man on a horse. He'd stopped at the edge of the scene, where once a wall had stood, his white horse balking at the madness even as the man leaned forward to better see.

It was clear to me now. I recognized "Nanny's Dance" from the poem Tam o Shanter by Robert Burns. Everything from the painting is mentioned in the poem: the devil playing bagpipes, corpses holding torches, three hearts on the floor, and so forth. In the poem, Tam's wife (named Kate!) warns him to stay away from ale and short skirts, because she waits for him at home. Nonetheless, he is entranced by Nanny's wild dance and calls out, at which point Hell lets loose its demons and he is chased across the countryside, barely escaping. And as Burns warns in the final stanza, if you don't stay away from ale and short skirts, old Nanny may pull off your horse's tale . . .

While we couldn't be sure, the painting is probably by William Kidd, the Scottish ne'er-do-well who was a child prodigy, but died penniless after a lifetime of, you guessed it, spending all his coin on ale and short skirts.

When I sent the details to Kate, we were, for the first time, able to laugh about the time I broke her heart for a passing fancy. I promised I would never even look at the skirt of another woman. The next day, I put my notice in at work. I would move to Florida and figure out the details in the margins later.

As I write this story, three years later, Kate is my wife, as once her namesake was wed Tam o Shanter. We are profoundly happy. Kate has left her old boss, and opened her own restoration business, while I am a magazine editor. I would never say that we owe it all to a dirty painting, but it's fair to say that we owe some of it to a restored one.

William Faulkner once wrote, "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."

If follows that art restoration is sacred, as an instrument for transcending entropy and restoring that fixed image. And sometimes, if you are inspired, and you are reverent, and your heart is filled with love, that arrested image moves again, alive in the imagination; and the restorer becomes the bearer - and the revealer - of mystery.