One of the most recognized and beloved works in Crystal Bridges’ collection is Kindred Spirits, painted by Asher Brown Durand in 1849. Last week the painting was removed from the museum gallery for a few hours so it could be photographed by the ultra-high-resolution camera of the Google Art project (We’ll say more on that in a later post).
In order to get a clear and highly detailed image of this iconic work, the glass (actually museum-quality Plexiglas) that had covered the painting since the museum’s opening had to be removed, which meant that the work was taken out of its frame for the first time since its acquisition.
It’s always interesting when a historical work is unframed. You never know what you’re going to find under the frame’s edges or behind the various types of material that sometimes cover the back of the canvas. Sometimes there are surprises: like when our curators discovered last year that Travelers in a Tropical Landscape, a work in Crystal Bridges’ collection painted by Louis Remy Mignot in 1861, appeared to have previously been part of a larger painting. Once the work was out of its frame, curators noticed that the paint continued all the way around the stretcher and beyond the edges of the canvas, indicating that it had been cut on all four sides from some larger work. Why? And what did the original work look like? Research to answer these questions is ongoing.
While no discoveries of this nature were expected with Kindred Spirits, it would nevertheless be an exciting moment when the work was removed from its frame, and so a group of museum staffers, myself included, was invited to be present at the event.
Regardless of their age, all the artworks in Crystal Bridges’ collection are treated like the most fragile of precious and venerable objects, as are the works in any museum’s collection. Thus, the preparation for this momentous occasion was something of a choreographed tea ceremony of careful draping of surfaces, placement of cushions, donning of gloves, and synchronized movements on the part of the art handlers in charge. Meanwhile, a small group of staff members, plus a professional photographer, tried to stay out of the preparators’ way while jockeying for viewing position.
At last the moment arrived. The onlookers hushed. All was still. Then, with a silent exchange of glances, the handlers gently lifted the painting from where it lay, face down in its gilded frame. While cameras clicked and staff members “ahhhhed,” the work was placed face up on a draped table nearby and we all had a chance to lean in and examine it up close and unobscured by its protective covering.
I was frankly a bit surprised at how moving this moment was. Without its glass covering, the painting seemed as naked and new as a recently molted caterpillar. Its 156-year-old paint seemed fresh and vibrant, its textures appeared in sharp relief, and its details crisp–rendered with infinite care. Although of course I’ve seen it hundreds of times in the six years I’ve been at Crystal Bridges, I suddenly felt as if I was seeing the work for the first time.
It was a reminder of how powerful an experience the in-person viewing of great works of art really is. Suddenly I was intimately aware of the presence of the artist, moving his brush over the canvas with masterful skill to create this very painting more than 150 years ago. It was like history contracted to allow me, just for that moment, to come this close to the very real person who lived, loved, and put his time and prodigious talent into the creation of this work of art. I was aware that the painting had outlasted its maker by more than 130 years, and would inevitably outlast all of us in that room, as well. It’s an awesome feeling: humbling and exhilarating at the same time.
After the photographing of the artwork, Crystal Bridges’ curator Mindy Besaw made the decision to return Kindred Spirits to the gallery without its previous glazing so our guests could have their own personal experience with the work. It now hangs, naked as the day it was born, for all to enjoy in the Colonial and Early Nineteenth-Century Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges. I encourage you to stop by and visit it.
Why Are Some Works Glazed, Anyway?
Many museums place a protective glass or Plexiglas covering over particularly valuable or popular works of art to protect them from their admirers. The more popular an artwork is, the more likely it is to be unintentionally damaged by museum visitors who just can’t quite restrain the urge to touch the painting’s surface. Any touching of the artworks, even by the most careful and gentle fingers, is detrimental because the oils in our skin transfer to the painting’s surface and can react with the pigments and light to create irreversible damage. The Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris is glazed, for example.
Works are also glazed sometimes when they are loaned out for exhibition in other museums. The glazing protects them from possible damage during shipping and handling. Crystal Bridges’ portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, for example, is covered by glass at its present installation in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where it is part of a temporary exhibition of America’s Presidents, on view through September 4, 2017.