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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Conservation of "Paul Revere" by Charles de Saint-Mémin

Take a peek behind the scenes at WAM's current exhibition Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere. In preparation for the exhibition, Charles de Saint-Mémin's 1801 print Paul Revere underwent conservation treatment by WAM conservators. During the planning of an exhibition, curators and conservators discuss the condition of each work, and determine goals for the treatment should it be pursued. Paul Revere was discolored overall with broad areas of dark brown stains. We decided to try to reduce the stains as much as safely possible, restoring the viewer’s focus to the portrait. Careful examination and research was conducted before embarking on the treatment of this portrait of the famous revolutionary war hero.

Fig 1. Before treatment
Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin, 
Paul Revere (1801). Etching, engraving, and roulette 
on paper. Bequest of Mrs. Albert W. Rice 1986.69

Charles de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852) served as an officer in the French Army and was exiled during the French Revolution (1789-1799). Shortly after, he came to the United States and began to teach himself printmaking and painting techniques. His first works of art were landscape views of New York City.

From 1798 to 1810, Saint-Mémin traveled down the East Coast of the United States drawing and engraving more than 800 portraits. Saint-Mémin’s portraits included important figures of Federal America such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and of course, Paul Revere. As much a businessman as an artist, Saint-Mémin would sell a package to his clients that included the original portrait, copper plate, and 12 impressions, delivered for $25. WAM is fortunate to have portraits of several individuals by Saint-Mémin in its collection.

Saint-Mémin’s portrait prints began with an original black chalk on paper drawing of his sitter. A mechanical drawing instrument called a physignotrace was used as an aid to generate the outline of the sitter’s features in profile. The drawing was then transferred to a copper plate using a pantograph, a mechanical copying device used to easily reduce the image proportionally. Linear marks were produced from a combination of engraving and etching techniques and shading was achieved by using a custom roulette, a printmaking tool of his own invention.

Treatment of the print began by testing how the printing ink and paper reacted to various treatment techniques. Testing is done on a very small scale and allows the conservator to see how the artwork reacts to techniques to determine their safety and efficacy. After testing, the print was selectively surface cleaned to remove loose grime. Localized and overall discoloration was reduced using a range of aqueous techniques. The final step was to fill the small losses along the top edge with a compatible paper support. Viewing the before and after treatment images (Fig. 1 and 2), we can see that visual and physical integrity of Paul Revere has been restored. Overall the paper is more even in tonality, distracting passages of dark brown stains have been reduced, and losses repaired.

Fig 2. After treatment
—Elle Friedberg, Pre-Program Intern in Conservation
   Eliza Spaulding, Paper Conservator
   April 14, 2020

You know him as a revolutionary war hero. But did you know that Paul Revere also was an artisan, entrepreneur, inventor, and master networker? Learn more about the man behind the legend in this highlights tour of Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere, narrated by Erin Corrales-Diaz, WAM's Assistant Curator of American Art.

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