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.

Winnie's portrait had hung in her bedroom at the Davis mansion. During the hurricane, furniture in the bedroom was flung around the room and against the painting. In addition, a beam pushed forward through the wall behind the painting, making a wide rip in the canvas through Winnie's chin. The portrait also suffered extensive paint loss. As the waters rushed out of the building, Winnie was left water damaged and coated in salt and debris.

Although the damage from Katrina was a primary concern when Winnie arrived at Winterthur, there was also much to learn about changes that had been made to the painting over the course of its lifetime. According to Amber Kerr-Allison, a WUDPAC graduate student conservator working on the portrait, the New Orleans Conservation Guild had stabilized the structural condition through the use of a wax lining, attached to the back of the canvas to protect it from humidity, temperature, and the environmental conditions of the Gulf region. To some extent that wax lining did protect Winnie from the elements during Katrina.

But Winterthur conservators discovered a secret in the painting. When the painting was X-rayed by Kerr-Allison and Richard Wolbers, WUDPAC’s coordinator of science instruction, they found that its original background, which showed the image of a building, had been painted over. Kerr-Allison speculated that the building was Beauvoir, painted over with foliage. Maybe there was a reason Beauvoir disappeared from the portrait: in 1888 Winnie became engaged to the Yankee Alfred Wilkinson, a New York attorney, causing outrage among Southerners. Eventually she called off the engagement and in fact never married, but Kerr-Allison theorized that a possible reason for the overpainting was that someone who felt betrayed by Winnie’s romance with a Yankee “erased” Beauvoir from her portrait.

When the portrait of Winnie arrived at Winterthur, it was clear that the damage might have been far worse, and the New Orleans Conservation Guild’s wax lining had protected it from complete destruction. As it was, however, the damage was severe. Kerr-Allison first cleaned the painting to remove the debris and salt, which can cause the paint layers to deteriorate. She then removed the wax lining to flatten and stabilize the canvas at the point of the tear and removed the previous restoration materials. The painting was humidified to reduce distortions in the canvas. The large tear was patched from the back using fabric and adhesive, and a new lining was attached to the entire reverse of the canvas to stabilize it. Conservation is slow, however, and conservators will need several more months before restoration is complete. Following the basic principle of employing only removable substances, the conservators will apply a clear synthetic resin before restoring paint that was rubbed away in the storm, and they will then apply a removable synthetic varnish to protect the painting and restoration.

Jefferson Davis

George Bagby Matthews completed the portrait of Jefferson Davis in 1888, when Davis was 80 years old. The damage this painting sustained from the hurricane was not as great as that of Winnie. However, it arrived at Winterthur with a warped canvas and severe salt water damage that resulted in blanching (tiny whitish cracks on the surface of the varnish that potentially allow salt water to penetrate into the paint layer beneath).

As with Winnie, the New Orleans Conservation Guild had restored the portrait of Jefferson Davis in the year before Katrina, but the Davis portrait restoration was limited to removal of the original varnish and application of Dammar varnish made from a natural plant resin. During Katrina, the canvas had been under water for around eight hours, swelling with moisture and shrinking again as it dried, which caused extensive warping and paint loss. At Winterthur damage to the varnish was apparent, but the conservators wanted to assess the damage to the paint underneath the varnish, as well as to the canvas itself.

The conservators' first task was to remove the dammar varnish applied by the New Orleans Conservation Guild. Several solvents were tested, and finally a solution of equal parts of acetone, petroleum benzene, and isopropanol was successful in removing it. It turned out that the blanching was limited to the varnish, and the paint underneath the varnish was revealed to be unharmed by the salt water. However, because of the warping of the canvas, the portrait did suffer flaking and loss of paint.