Take Five: Art Museum's Paul Haner on restoring a masterpiece in public view
A scrolling painting presented with theatrical flair to 19th-century audiences will star again this summer in a kind of performance art.
The 348-foot long masterpiece is the subject of the St. Louis Art Museum’s “Restoring an American Treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley,” opening Friday, June 8. Through Sept. 3, SLAM visitors can see artists restore the 1850 painting.
If it sounds like watching paint dry, it isn’t. For one thing, there’s no paint or other liquid involved. Watercolor crayons are being used to restore areas creased by rolling and unrolling. For another, interaction between the artists and the public keeps the project lively, according to SLAM paintings conservator Paul Haner, who leads a team of conservators working on the project.
“It’s not just sitting behind a glass-paneled room and not having any kind of contact with the public,” Haner said. “Each scene takes 10 days to complete so if they come back every couple of weeks, they’ll see a different scene.”
The restoration continues an effort that began last summer, when 11 of the 25 panels were touched up in view of the public. Haner talked with the Beacon about about the process and importance of “Restoring an American Treasure,” featuring the John Egan painting commissioned in 1850 by Philadelphian Montroville Dickeson.
Beacon: What do the panels depict?
Paul Haner: The panorama illustrates a variety of historical moments including the 16th-century burial of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, an 18th-century battle scene and the lives of 19th-century Native Americans.
The scenes are not chronological, and some of the objects in the scenes are combinations of things that were never together in the same place at the same time. So, he just kind of brought things together and made a fictitious scene.
What is the history of showing this work?
Haner: In the mid-19th century, these panoramas were a very popular means of entertainment; they were early motion pictures, essentially. The Mississippi River theme was a very popular one -- there were, as far as we know, six of them [with that theme] and ours is the only one that survived. So it’s a really important documentation of the times and the character of the nation.
The drama of the whole presentation was like performance art. They would be in a an auditorium up on a stage and the scenes would scroll past while Dickeson did the narration of the scenes in kind of a trumped-up, dramatic but not 100 percent historically accurate form of entertainment.
What are the issues about the panorama that require restoration?
Haner: It’s essentially been in storage here for the last 50 or 60 years. This thing is scrolled from roll to roll on two big rollers, 10 feet tall, and it would roll like an old film cartridge, and there was a lot of wear and tear from that.
The original canvas is a medium-light weight cotton fabric and and the colors held up remarkably well but the paint was a fragile kind of medium called distemper. It’s glue-based and it’s very thinly applied. In all the folding and creasing and bunching up of fabric, there’s a lot of paint loss.
If you go
Where: St. Louis Art Museum, Forest Park
When: Friday, June 8-Sept. 3
How much: Free
Would you say more about the restoration process?
Haner: Most of the losses were along straight lines where the creases were. The crayons allow us to keep within that line.
The paint layer is really water-sensitive so we couldn’t use a liquid paint on a brush because it might bleed into the adjacent area and cause staining. So the best way to get the color back on the painting now is to use a dry medium. It’s an unusual treatment, but on this, this medium seems to work the best.
What happens to the panorama when the work is complete?
Haner: Once it’s finished and the new galleries are completed, the panorama will be installed on the third floor galleries in the Cass Gilbert building on permanent view.
The scenes will be left up for a month or several months and we then can change to the next one. It won’t be a motion picture that’s continually running; it will be one scene at a time. And there will be photographic images of the entire thing so you’ll be able to see each scene but it’s too fragile to now to be moved all the time.
If we don’t get finished this year, there might be a part three. If we get all but three or four scenes done this summer, we’ll have to finish it up in the new gallery. But it will all be done in public view.