Treasures of Biloxi: Art Conservation in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

The portrait of Winnie Davis before being treated at Winterthur.

The portrait of Winnie Davis before being treated at Winterthur.

Expert art conservators were among the first to arrive on the scene in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, had been devastated, and its collection of American art, artifacts, and books was in ruins.

When Hurricane Katrina struck Biloxi in 2005, it brought with it a 30-foot wall of water that finally retreated in wild vortexes of currents, smashing almost everything in its path and taking much back out to sea. The art and artifacts that Beauvoir housed had been swept away or were near ruin. Five of Beauvoir's seven buildings were destroyed, and the remaining two, the library built in 1998 and the president's mansion, were severely damaged. To the staff at Beauvoir it seemed as if the entire estate had been run through a giant electric blender.

In the ruins of the storm, the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) found an opportunity for outreach and education, and its conservators rushed to participate in the recovery of artworks at Beauvoir. Administered by the University of Delaware with facilities at the Winterthur estate, WUDPAC offers one of three highly competitive fine art conservation graduate programs in the country. Here students study art history, chemistry, and archaeology and are trained to examine, analyze, stabilize, and treat art and artifacts. According to Joyce Hill Stoner, the head of the preservation studies doctoral program at WUDPAC, the destruction at Beauvoir provided real-life emergency training for students in the program. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and additional public and private support, the conservators went to work.

Three badly damaged historical portrait paintings from Beauvoir were sent to Winterthur for conservation. These were portraits of Jefferson Davis's daughter Varina Anne Davis (better known as Winnie), Jefferson Davis's own portrait, and a mysterious painting known as La Bella. All three paintings had been treated by the New Orleans Conservation Guild a year before Katrina, which helped protect them from even greater damage during the storm. But the storm was harsh, and the paintings were cracked and warped from salt water saturation and ripped as they were hit by furniture and other objects that were flung around by the wind and currents. Each painting presented different challenges. The canvas of Winnie's portrait was ripped under her chin and had paint loss. The portrait of Jefferson Davis sustained extreme salt damage, and the canvas itself was warped. And La Bella, which sustained the least amount of damage with only a few spots of flaked paint and a small puncture, had a mysterious history and makeup to unravel.

The conservators' first challenge was to examine the paintings and find the information they would need in order to respect the paintings' histories and cause no further damage; this follows one of the primary rules of conservancy during the last 50 years: to do no harm to the object being conserved. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes a clear distinction between conservation and restoration. It defines conservation as examination, scientific analysis, and research on art and artifacts to determine their original structure, materials, and the extent of loss, as well as structural and environmental treatment to retard future deterioration. Restoration is defined as the reconstruction of the aesthetic appearance of an object. In general conservators agree that any restoration of work on a painting should be removable in case of new interpretations or discoveries that tell more about how the work originally looked. The WUDPAC conservators had a daunting task: to determine the original form of these heavily damaged paintings, to restore them to that original form, and to protect them from future damage, all without altering the original artworks.

Winnie

The Portrait of Varina Anne "Winnie" Davis, or simply Winnie, had suffered the most damage of the three paintings transported to Winterthur. In the portrait the young woman who was known as the daughter of the Confederacy is depicted as the Queen of Comus, a recurring position in the New Orleans Mardi Gras festival, and one that Winnie Davis took in 1892. In the portrait Winnie wears the Queen of Comus's crown and holds her wand. The 1892 festival had a Japanese theme, and Winnie wears clothing that appears to be Asian in style.