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Frey-ed Canvas: Conserving the Bowers' Pio Pico Painting

Don Pio Pico, 1868
Henry J. Frey (American, b?-d?)
Oil on canvas; 24 x 20 in.
Gift of Mrs. John Forster
Repairing a Rogue’s Ranchero Representation
About a year and a half ago the Bowers Museum Collections Blog published a post on our resident painting of Pio Pico. For years the painting had been exhibited by a perfunctory “Unknown Artist” label, but through research we were finally able to identify the artist behind the work and present what little information exists on the mysterious and roguish painter behind our beloved painting. The post explained that Pico’s likeness was captured in 1868 by Henry Frey, a talented artist with the unfortunate distinction of being best known for plagiarizing the works of the better-known Charles Christian Nahl— “much to his regret and detriment.” What we did not emphasize was the general state of disrepair the painting had fallen into since its 19thCentury creation. Here we discuss the efforts taken in 2017 with the help of the Laguna Art Museum and the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC) to restore the painting to its full glory.
Missions and Ranchos to Missions to Murals
In the Summer of 2016, the Laguna Art Museum reached out to the Bowers regarding including four of our paintings in their then-upcoming California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820-1930 exhibition. As the Laguna Art Museum’s contribution to the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA initiative, the exhibition looked to answer the question of how Mexico’s Alta California became the California we know today, particularly addressing how this was reflected in artwork. As the last governor of Mexican California, Pio Pico stands as a pivotal figure in this transitional period. The Laguna Art Museum inquired into borrowing Pio Pico from us for the exhibition, and the Bowers Museum happily obliged. With the support of the Laguna Art Museum, on February 8, 2017 the painting was sent to the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego for conservation.
A view of 3513 at the BACC studio.
Matter of Conservation
Upon first review of the painting, the conservation team at the BACC noted 18 distinct areas of treatment for the painting, canvas, and frame. The most obvious issues with the untreated painting can be seen in the above before image: splotches of paint throughout the background, cracks in the paint resulting from humidity and damage to the painting’s varnish over time, and large areas of paint loss throughout. Of course, beneath the surface there was far more going on. Tears in the fabric had hastily been repaired with patches only visible on the canvas’ reverse, the canvas had become warped, the frame was in a state of disrepair, and the list continued. Between March 9, 2017 and July 20, 2017 experts at the BACC used an arsenal of highly-technical industry products to clean and repair the painting, fix the canvas, and repair the frame to the point that the painting as a whole could once more proudly be displayed in an exhibition space.
Conserve and Report
More than just restoring the painting to its original state, the process shed more light on the painting itself. Of course, the use of several cleaning solutions allowed the BACC to reveal the Pio Pico’s rosy tones beneath the superficial grime, discolored varnish, and overpaint. The big discovery, however, was the painting’s intended shape. When the painting was reexamined in advance of our previous blog post, we had noted that the painting was evidently based upon an ovoid photograph. This raised our suspicions, but the BACC provided concrete evidence to support this hypothesis: the lack of finishing at the painting’s corners, the location of Henry Frey’s signature over Pio Pico’s right shoulder, and the pencil-drawn oval outline on the canvas, seen with infrared reflectography which allows one to view commonly used underdrawing mediums. With permission, the BACC commissioned a lining with an oval-shaped opening from J. Dewars Framing so that only those parts of the painting which Henry Frey had intended for viewers to see were on display.
The infrared reflectogram indicating that the original painting was intended for an oval-shaped canvas.
Highlighted on the right. Courtesy of the Balboa Art Conservation Center.
There and Back Again: Pio Pico’s Story
After conservation had finished, the painting travelled to the Laguna Art Museum for the wonderfully arranged California Mexicana. With the exhibition now over, on January 17, 2018 the painting returned to the Bowers Museum and is once more hanging in our own California Legacies: Missions and Ranchos (1768-1848). As we continue to work to conserve our permanent fine art collection, we would like to take time to thank the Laguna Art Museum and the Balboa Art Conservation Center for their collaboration on this project!
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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