Assumption of Mary Painting Restoration

Catholic Fine Arts Council member Bob Swain spent much of 2011 restoring a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by James O'Neill, a Wisconsin artist who was embedded with the Union Army during the Civil War in Lawrence, Kansas.  The painting was commissioned by Bishop Miege, the first bishop of our archdiocese.  The restored painting is now on view at Mater Dei parish, Topeka, KS.

The restoration process:

  • I began with a thorough examination of the artwork, taking photos and documenting injuries to the painting as well as looking for any attribution or provenance that may have been attached or written onto the canvas/stretcher.
  • The canvas was then removed from the stretcher frame.  The patina on the stretcher suggests that it is original to the painting.  It is in good shape with the exception of a broken/missing crossbar.  With the replacement of a crossbar, I believe this original stretcher can be reused.
  • The painting was then removed from the panel to which it had been glued - a very slow and tedious process as great care had to be taken not to cause further injury or peeling of paint.
  • Upon removal of the painting from the panel, I discovered that there was actually more missing canvas that I had initially thought.  Much of the ripped and torn canvas had simply been replaced by a plaster-like material that had been used to fill in the space where the canvas was missing.  This added to the complexity of removing the canvas from the back panel.  It also left me with about 25 pieces of loose canvas and painted putty.
  • I removed the old patches that were glued to the back of the painting.  They were not properly applied; in fact, most were actually printed canvas strips from tents or awnings.  The excess dried glue and putty had to be chipped away and sanded from the back of the canvas.
  • Once the canvas was completely removed from the panel and free of glue and debris, a conditioner was applied to the canvas to restore flexibility and suppleness to the old dried and brittle canvas.  The canvas was left to absorb the conditioner and then dry completely (about two weeks) before proceeding with the next step: re-lining.
  • Next, the canvas was re-lined.  A new canvas was attached to the old canvas with a wax resin lining compound.  This process serves several purposes; it stabilizes the old canvas, builds an outer trim on the canvas that allows for re-mounting the canvas on a stretcher bar, and it provides a base for in-fill of the missing canvas and paint.  Additionally, the wax compound melts through the backside of the old canvas and attaches to the underneath side of the old pain and ground, thus stabilizing and holding the old paint firmly onto the canvas.
  • The pieces of loose painted canvas, which have also been conditioned, were put back into their places and for the locations where only painted plaster had been, initial base in-fill of replacement canvas was done by cutting out new canvas in the shapes of the missing canvas and attaching it to the melted wax resin. 
  • At this point, I believe the artwork has been stabilized.  Next I will repair the original stretcher frame and get the painting remounted.  After that, picture repair putty will be used to fill in all of the remaining cracks, nicks and missing paint chips.  This will be colored, textured, and sanded to match the surface texture of the painting.