Worcester Art Museum Breathes New Life Into William Hogarth

The conserved portraits of William and Elizabeth James by William Hogarth at the Worcester Art Museum. Courtesy the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.

Massachusetts’s Worcester Art Museum (WAM) is unveiling two newly restored William Hogarth (1697–1764) pendant portraits, the first paintings by the artist owned by an American museum, in the latest exhibition in the Jeppson Idea Lab series, which goes behind the scenes in the institution’s conservation lab.

The companion paintings, titled William James and Elizabeth James, were painted in 1744. Purchased by the museum way back in 1910 from a London art dealer, the pair was on display for nearly 100 years before they were taken down to make way for gallery renovations in 2008. When curators realized the paintings, thought to be in good condition, had never been examined by conservation experts, they seized the chance to take a closer look at the beloved canvases.

The exhibition provides an in-depth exploration of the delicate conservation process, funded by a $35,000 grant from the TEFAF Museum Restoration Fund, that followed. Video interviews with WAM conservators Rita Albertson and Philip Klausmeyer and interactive iPad elements will reveal each step of the multi-year process.

A careful evaluation revealed the canvases’ discoloration from many layers of varnish, as well as embedded dirt and grime. The lab employed high-resolution microscopic imaging as well as a cross-section analysis of the works, which shed light on Hogarth’s materials and methods. WAM conservator Birgit Straehle also took great pains to restore the pieces’ matching gilded frames.

Returned to their original glory, the Jameses can now be seen as the artist intended, in vibrant colors, with the finery of their attire more readily apparent. Elizabeth, who once appeared to be wearing a faded yellow garment, now dons a pearly white dress. In his reclaimed state, William’s bemused personality shines through, and it is quite clear that he is older than his wife.

“Now that the true colors of the painting are revealed and the artist’s facility for handling paint more evident, visitors can more fully appreciate Hogarth’s original intention,” said Albertson in a press release. “This exhibition offers a new way of looking at these long treasured works.”

Jeppson Idea Lab: Portraits by William Hogarth” will be on view July 19 through February 8, 2015. 

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