In our second installment of The Art Doctor, conservator Nina Roth-Wells shares her recent work on Ezra Ames’s Portrait of Catherine Margaret (Kitty) James, a painting that has seemingly led two lives and is currently on view in A Usable Past: American Folk Art at the Colby Museum of Art.
In the summer of 1822 artist Ezra Ames (1768–1836) traveled to Albany, New York, to paint portraits of the wealthy James family (the great-aunt and -uncle of the American writer Henry James). During his visit, Ames painted the four-year-old Kitty, a portrait that was much later given to the Colby College Museum of Art by Elizabeth Whetstone. In preparation for A Usable Past, that portrait, along with fifteen other paintings, traveled to my studio for treatment. The portrait’s pretreatment appearance is visible in Figure 1.
The astute observer will notice that the painting of Kitty has experienced more than just the usual painting conservation treatment techniques and in fact has undergone a transformation akin to a makeover.
While cleaning this painting, I noticed that something unusual had happened to this portrait. As I removed layers of discolored varnish, changes to the hair and the dress of the little girl became apparent (Figure 2). Conservators often discover small areas of overpaint in which, during previous treatments, damages were painted over, but this was something else. In fact, the remnants of a completely different style of dress were visible. At this point, as a conservator, I had come to a crossroad and needed to make a decision: return the painting to its original condition or leave the newer version intact.
Part of the job of the conservator is to interpret and preserve the artist’s intent. But in this case, how could I know which version Ames intended to present? How is it possible to be sure when examining evidence that is almost two hundred years old?
The answer is to employ a two-pronged interdisciplinary approach that uses both science and history. Since the dramatic alterations to the dress were made in areas that were painted white (and during the nineteenth century, most white paint was made with lead, which is X-ray opaque), I was pretty confident that an X-radiograph of the painting would be helpful in deciphering the changes. Lauren Lessing, Mirken director of academic and public programs and cocurator of A Usable Past, reached out to Waterville’s Inland Hospital and, not long after, Kitty, Lauren, and I spent the afternoon in radiology. The radiographs (Figure 3) were even more than we could have hoped for.
In the radiograph you can clearly see a different dress and hairstyle. Lauren noted that the shorter hair, open chest, and tied sleeves visible in the X-ray were consistent with 1820s style and the date of the painting.
Confident that exposing what we could see in the X-ray was consistent with Ames’s intent, we decided to proceed with removing the layers of overpaint. Over the next several months, I continued its removal but I felt that I couldn’t remove all of it without damaging the underlying layers. With the X-radiograph and other paintings by Ames as a guide, I proceeded with retouching to reconstruct the original 1820s dress and short hairstyle (Figure 4). In a nice surprise, we found a gold necklace that the overpaint had concealed along her chest. It hadn’t shown up in the X-ray because the ochre pigments used to paint it are not X-ray opaque. What you see in Figure 5 is the result of my treatment.
So what did happen to Kitty James? At some point between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century the portrait was repainted to depict a little girl in dress common to the 1840s. We can be confident that Ames himself did not make these changes as he died in 1836. The overpaint must have been finished by the time the work was pictured in the 1950 catalogue raisonné of Ezra Ames, in which Kitty appears with long hair and puffed sleeves. Now, after many years, Kitty has been revealed as Ames painted her back in 1822.