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Rare murals being restored in Pitt fine arts building

Warhol-based expert called in to repair "incomparable" copies of works of Renaissance masters

Sunday, May 25, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like a skilled surgeon, Christine Daulton wields a scalpel carefully.

She often makes her rounds on scaffolds because her patients are murals or paintings that hang in public buildings or art galleries.

Conservator Christine Daulton works on restoring "The Arrival of the Ambassadors," a copy by Russian artist Nicholas Lochoff of Renaissance master Vittore Carpaccio's work, which hangs in the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

The soft-spoken, blond conservator says her patients need as much care as some human beings and can be just as demanding.

Take "The Arrival of the Ambassadors," a five-panel work in the Frick Fine Arts Building at the University of Pittsburgh. It shows St. Ursula telling her father, and enumerating on her fingers, the conditions under which she will marry a pagan British prince. (Ursula, princess of Brittany, insisted the prince convert and go on a three-year pilgrimage to Rome.)

It's taken months of analysis, careful cleaning and stripping of old varnish, and delicate application of adhesives, to restore the flaking, cracking work, a masterful copy of a Renaissance scene set in Venice, Italy.

The scene, painted by Renaissance master Vittore Carpaccio, was copied by Nicholas Lochoff, a Russian artist famed for his ability to reproduce the works and techniques of well-known Renaissance artists in meticulous detail. Lochoff spent much of his career in Florence, Italy, before he died in 1948.

Before photos got big reproductions ruled

Copies of artwork are not valued highly today, but Nicholas Lochoff's ability to reproduce in detail the works of Renaissance masters gave him stature during the first half of the last century.

"Photography wasn't booming at that point. Many art books did not contain images, certainly not color images. People looked to copyists," said Patricia Barnett, Andrew W. Mellon librarian at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York City.

"Once photography took over, these people no longer had the respect they once had," she said, adding that Lochoff's work was "a form of art education."

As a young man in St. Petersburg, Russia, Lochoff studied chemistry and developed an interest in art by studying and copying works he saw in the Hermitage Museum.

In 1911, Czar Nicholas II commissioned Lochoff to create copies of Renaissance art for the Moscow Museum of Fine Arts, now the Pushkin Museum.

"It was a very enlightened notion. Italy doesn't need any copies, if you stop to think about it. It's the people up in Moscow who need the copies," said David Wilkins, chair of the University of Pittsburgh's department of the history of art and architecture.

"To bring all the great treasures of art, especially from Italy, to people who wouldn't have a chance to see them otherwise was a very enlightened notion," he said.

Lochoff went to Italy to study Italian art but returned to Russia in the winters.

He devoted most of his life to producing painstaking copies of famous works by Renaissance masters such as Bellini, Botticelli, Giotto and Carpaccio.

Sometimes, he spent as much as a year on a single picture. His studio in Florence still stands.

When the October Revolution occurred in Russia in 1917, Lochoff was stranded in Florence. Later, he appealed to Bernard Berenson, the famous art critic, to find a buyer for his work.

The late Helen Clay Frick, a passionate collector of 13th- and 14th-century Renaissance art, may have met Lochoff through Berenson.

In 1928, Frick commissioned Lochoff to copy Pietro Lorenzetti's "Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and Saint John."

The 14th-century fresco is in the Church of San Francisco in Assisi. That copy hangs in the reading room of the Frick Art Reference Library in New York City.

Wilkins is delighted with the restored Lochoffs.

"I think they look fabulous," Wilkins said, adding that when "The Arrival of the Ambassadors" was halfway finished, "I couldn't believe how dirty it had been. It would be great to see it against the original. I think ours probably looks better than the original."

The original of that scene hangs at the Accademia in Venice, but Wilkins does not believe it has been cleaned or restored recently.

The Lochoff copies "are used all the time by classes," and "papers are assigned on those pictures," Wilkins said.

Franklin K. Toker, Pitt professor of the history of art and architecture, believes the Italians respected Lochoff's talents.

"Clearly, they thought he was brilliant in his knowledge and taste. They called him in to restore the entire Villa Barbaro. It's the greatest Palladian villa" in the village of Maser in Northern Italy.

"He restored the [Paolo] Veronese frescoes. He was clearly a renowned guy. In terms of a Venetian fresco, it's just about the most complex cycle there is," Toker said.

-- By Marylynne Pitz,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Lochoff's version of Carpaccio's work was among 23 copies of famous Renaissance images purchased from his estate for $40,000 in 1959 by Helen Clay Frick.

Since 1965, when the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Building opened, Lochoff's copies have hung in the building's Renaissance cloister, which features a beautiful garden and is open to the sky like an Italian monastic cloister.

Generations of fine arts students have studied Lochoff's copies, which were commissioned by Czar Nicholas of Russia in the 1900s, before large art books with color plates were common. A few were painted on canvas but most were done on dry plaster.

For that reason, most of the Lochoff copies are a form of fresco known as fresco secco because they were painted on dry, instead of wet, plaster. True frescoes are painted on wet plaster so that the art work becomes part of the plaster.

Lochoff painted "The Arrival of the Ambassadors" and "The Birth of Venus" on canvas, so Daulton considers them murals.

"In this country, when we say murals, we generally mean painting that has been done on canvas and attached to a wall," she added.

The artworks "are not framed in the conventional sense. They are framed to the wall," Daulton said, adding that a molding around the edges secures them to the wall.

"The Ambassadors" also is secured by some kind of bolts that she has detected between the panels.

While the cloister serves as a classroom, it also is a popular setting for receptions. Lochoff's work suffered because partygoers spilled coffee and wine on the paintings. A coat rack was scraped across one painting, leaving a horizontal gash on a scene that shows Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden.

Caterers slammed steam tables against walls in the cloister, too, subjecting the art to humidity.

In September, Daulton began restoring nine of the 23 Lochoff paintings. "The Arrival of the Ambassadors" presented the greatest challenge.

"On a scale of one to 10, with one being perfect, the painting was an 8 in terms of its needs," she said.

The paint was cracking and the edges of those cracks were lifting up like a dish and then flaking, which qualifies as "an artistic emergency" she added.

To do their work well, art conservators must be facile in painting and drawing and have a deep knowledge of art history so they know how a painting or mural is supposed to look.

Science helps, too.

Before cleaning the mural, Daulton had to determine what types of varnish had been used on it.

"I take a scalpel and I remove a tiny bit of paint. This sample is the size of the head of a pin," Daulton said.

The sample was sent to a lab in Williamstown, Mass., where technicians embedded it in a liquid plastic resin, let it dry, then cut it in half.

Technicians viewed a cross-section of the sample under a microscope to determine what kinds of varnish were used on the mural.

When she came to Pittsburgh in 1982, Daulton was unfamiliar with the city's black dirt, which she found on works of art.

"I've cleaned so many paintings now that I am familiar with that black dirt," Daulton said, adding that she knew she was looking at pigmented varnish, not the local dirt, as she began to clean.

The two layers of varnish obscured the painting's rich colors and light.

"The shadows were murky. The dirt and discolored varnish had flattened the mural so that it deprived it of any sense of depth," Daulton said.

The mural was so dark that, "The whites were tan. They weren't even beige," said Michael McSorley of North Versailles, who has assisted Daulton for the last four years.

After securing the areas where paint was flaking, Daulton used a tiny brush to paint an adhesive behind those chips.

When the adhesive dried, she covered those areas with silicone release paper, which does not stick to anything. Then she took a tacking iron and held it against the paint. The iron's heat relaxed the paint and activated the adhesive.

Daulton, who has restored murals in the Allegheny County Courthouse and the Palace Theater in Greensburg, studied at Virginia Commonwealth University and is based at The Andy Warhol Museum.

She said she wished she had been able to study Lochoff's copies when she was studying Renaissance art.

"I think it would have made me appreciate the work more. Seeing something in a slide makes it into a small icon. You miss out on its sense of proportion. You don't see the brush strokes. You don't see the texture. You don't see the three-dimensional aspects of the work."

Murals, Daulton said, "are meant to be viewed from a certain distance. You don't appreciate the monumental nature of the work and its scope until you're standing in front of it."

After surface dirt was removed, the varnishes were stripped away.

"There was a natural resin varnish that had blue pigment. On top of that was a thick, acrylic varnish. It was so brittle it just popped right off," Daulton said.

It is common to varnish artworks.

"Varnishes are used to protect the paint and to saturate the paint so that it retains that fresh wet look it had when it was first painted," Daulton said.

The varnish with the deep blue pigment proved more problematic because it "covered the faces of many of the people in the mural on the bottom third of the mural."

There also were areas where someone had painted over the original work.

"It clearly did not match the original paint," Daulton said.

To test that newer paint, she dipped tiny cotton swabs in solvents and applied them to areas that were one-quarter-inch square.

Two of the mural panels were covered in two layers of acrylic varnish that Daulton called "hellish."

"I had to use a solvent gel that only acts up to a certain point," she said, adding that she applied the solvent gel on the far left panel at least 10 times.

She also saw huge drip marks of varnish running down the painting, which meant that it was applied ineptly.

When the varnish was removed, "It was really exciting to start to see the colors and the light and the sense of depth. The painting starts to telescope. It moves forward and back."

She had support during the hours of painstaking work, she said. "People talk to you all the time when you're working in public and say, 'Thank you so much for doing this.' You get a lot of encouragement."

Railings will be installed around the restored paintings to prevent future damage.

Franklin K. Toker, a Pitt professor of the history of art and architecture, urged university officials to restore the paintings.

Few Pittsburgh residents, Toker said, will travel to the sleepy Tuscan town of Borgo San Sepolcro in Italy to see the original "Resurrection of Christ" by Piero della Francesca.

"You are basically not going to see that original. Here it is."

When Lochoff made the copies, Toker said, he worked as much as possible under the same conditions in which the originals were done.

"He did not go to the corner store in Florence for his paints. He ground them straight from the natural pigments."

The Lochoff copies, Toker said, are incomparable.

"I cannot think of their equal anywhere in the world," Toker said.

Lochoff's work has not received its due, Toker believes, "because we literally cannot compare it with anything in the world. I have never been in a chamber with so many and such excellent replicas."

Robert Hill, a university spokesman, said he could not say what the restoration cost "because we haven't been given the figure. The contractor does not authorize the university to release how much it was paid, so we don't have that figure available."

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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