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A tale of two Philadelphia bathers, now cleaned up and ready to strut their stuff

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's "The Great Bathers," by Renoir, and the Barnes Foundation's "The Large Bathers," by Cézanne, have both undergone conservation. The Renoir is back on view in all its glory. The Cézanne is being rehung next month.

Barbara Buckley, director of conservation and chief conservator of paintings at the Barnes Foundation, removes varnish from Paul Cezanne's The Large Bathers.
Barbara Buckley, director of conservation and chief conservator of paintings at the Barnes Foundation, removes varnish from Paul Cezanne's The Large Bathers.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Looking at Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers, one of the jewels of the Barnes Foundation’s 69 works by the French master, visitors to the gallery on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway are most likely unaware of the painting’s dramatic life.

Cézanne was working on it when he died in 1906. He’d expanded the canvas at least twice, fiddled with the size of the figures, fiddled with the contours of a tree, fiddled with a hand, slapped on paint, wiped it off, redrew at least one figure, left heads worthy of a cubist sketch, and generally fussed over it for 11 years.

Up the Parkway, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, visitors have also been likely unaware of drama surrounding Pierre-August Renoir’s The Great Bathers, an 1887 work that has undergone anxiety-producing preservation treatments (including a death-defying complete removal of paint from canvas in a restoration effort prior to the art museum’s stewardship).

But much light has recently been cast on the complex histories of these two masterworks, thanks to conservation grants bestowed by the Bank of America. Neither the bank nor the two art institutions would disclose the size of the grants other than calling them “significant.” The bank’s decade-old Art Conservation Project has spruced up thousands of works in 33 countries since 2010, all without releasing numbers in public documents, according to the nonprofit ArtWatch International.

The Renoir underwent an analytical deep dive and extensive restoration to repair recurrent large cracks that were bowing and damaging its paint surfaces. It now hangs on the museum’s second floor, in a gallery with the art museum’s own Cézanne Large Bathers (which he started a bit later than his Barnes effort).

The Barnes’ Bathers is in the final stages of its yearlong conservation saga and will soon return to pride of place on the east wall of the main gallery, above Renoir’s The Artist’s Family (1896). Visitors will be able to see it there starting Dec. 18.

“So the first part of the year was a lot of technical analysis,” said Barbara Buckley, the Barnes conservator of paintings and director of conservation. “That was the goal of the project — to do technical analysis so that we come to a better understanding of the materials Cézanne used in making the painting. The analysis also included different imaging techniques. … And I have also traveled to the National Gallery in London to look at their painting [the third of Cézanne’s Bathers] and talk to their conservators.”

As she spoke, Buckley and conservator Anya Shutov stood before Large Bathers, which was propped on an easel at one end of the lab. The painting shimmered with a color far richer than evident when it’s displayed high on the wall of the Barnes gallery.

Cézanne worked on all three of his Large Bathers during the last decade or so of his life.

“We knew that the [conservation] treatment was always going to be only one part of this whole project," said Buckley. "But the other we thought was just as important — understanding the materials and how it fit in with the other two paintings.”

What the treatment and analysis made clear to Buckley and her colleagues is that Cézanne was not easily satisfied with his own work. His initial composition featured a large nude on the left of the canvas, so large, in fact, that it shattered the plane of the other figures and her foot seemed about to crash through the bottom of the painting.

That wouldn’t do. Cézanne reduced the figure’s size and brought it in line with the other bathers. That change became apparent through analysis of X-ray imagery, which brought the earlier drawing to the surface.

“We did infrared reflectography, which shows us the under drawing — the first sketch the artist makes on canvas before he starts painting,” said Shutov. “You can see some of the, probably, crayon lines that were put in to outline the figures, the basket, and other elements of the painting, the drapery.”

By far the biggest change to the painting involved the canvas itself, providing insight into Cézanne’s restless process of composition. He physically added a strip of canvas about two inches wide to the entire length of the bottom and another about eight inches wide the entire length of the right side, and he unfolded the top of the canvas where it had been attached to the stretcher.

The additions of painting surface opened up the space and allowed all the figures to nestle into their woodsy grotto.

Conservators had known of the canvas extensions since an examination of the painting in the 1990s. But analysis using x-radiography and the removal of restoration paint along the canvas seams revealed the precise nature of the additions.

A reversal of varnish

When Albert C. Barnes acquired the painting from dealer Ambroise Vollard, he directed that it be relined and that color be retouched. He explicitly directed that no varnish should be applied.

Nevertheless, varnish was applied to the paint surface and had now yellowed. Buckley and Shutov have been removing it. This allows Cézanne’s colors to come alive.

Additional testing has revealed Cézanne’s liberal use of emerald green across the canvas. “There’s tons of it everywhere!” said Shutov. “He uses it not just for the color, but to actually adjust, for example, some really bright colors. Like vermilion is a really bright red. Well, he uses emerald green to sort of tone it down and turn it into brown.”

Beyond a small area that was touched up, probably in a 1933 restoration, "the condition of the painting is really beautiful,” said Buckley.

The other ‘Bathers’ up the Parkway

The same could probably not be said of Renoir’s Great Bathers prior to its conservation treatment at the Art Museum.

The surface of the painting, particularly of the three central figures, was riven by major cracks, a concern for years. In 2016, the museum began what turned out to be a major 18-month effort to stabilize the surface, repair the damage, and determine what was causing the problems.

The painting was restored in time for its inclusion in “The Impressionist’s Eye,” an exhibition that was on view at the museum from April to August; it now is in the European galleries.

Renoir, just returned from Italy in 1885 when he started to paint it, was full of ambition to challenge the Renaissance masters, and the three central figures of The Great Bathers reflect that with their monumentality and attention to sculptural line. This is not the work of the traditional impressionist concerned with light and spontaneity.

Renoir poured himself into creating the work, making multiple preparatory drawings, reworking the figures over and over with layer upon layer of paint. “He works on this [painting] for three years,” said Jennifer Thompson, the art museum’s curator of European painting. “He feels that the stakes are really high to come out with something that shows a dramatic and new direction in his work.”

Alas, the painting was not well-received by the public and the work Renoir put into it — the endless changes to the figures, in particular — laid the seeds for its later cracking.

Philadelphia collector Carroll S. Tyson Jr. acquired the painting in 1928 from painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, a Renoir friend. Apparently the cracking was already a problem because Tyson agreed to the complete transfer of the painting onto a new canvas sometime in the late 1930s.

“Transfers were were not as uncommon then as they are now," said Mark Tucker, head of conservation for the museum. Tyson gave the painting to the museum in 1963.

Tucker said the cracks were “particularly concentrated in the middle part of the painting, where there is a lot of reworking.”

Conservator Kristin Patterson, who labored over The Great Bathers for a year and a half, said that the earlier effort to repair the issue didn’t resolve it.

“The cracks really were a problem," and not just aesthetically, she said. “When monitoring closely, we could see even with small changes and the environmental humidity, the cracks would slightly open and slightly close,” which could lead to further cracking.

The museum worked with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, owner of the area’s only heated suction table, which can secure a painting face up by creating a vacuum from below. “We wanted to flatten the cracks as far as we safely could to get them stable," said Patterson.

They also humidified the painting. "It relaxes the paint layers just a little bit,” she said.

The process took about a week.

“Then we attached it to a solid support and we used heat-reactivated adhesive films, so it’s something that can be reversed fairly easily in the future,” said Patterson. “And I think the result is actually quite wonderful.”

Beyond the cracks, the painting was severely discolored by varnish. All has been cleaned away.

“The surface that we were looking at two years ago [before completion of conservation] was nowhere near what Renoir saw and considered to be his art,” said Patterson. “So the treatment did, of course, involve carefully removing the surface coatings that were there. And the brightness of the colors that was revealed — it’s the most satisfying thing about that treatment. It’s just gorgeous.”