Saving Millet’s “Mail Delivery”

In the 1980s the United States General Services Administration (GSA) became aware of the fragile condition of Millet’s “Mail Delivery.” Among the varied responsibilities charged to the agency since its inception in 1949 is the care and conservation of America’s artistic and architectural treasures. GSA’s Fine Arts Program, whose primary goal is to conserve their vast collection of more than 17,000 paintings, sculptures and other works of art commissioned by the federal government since the 1850s, immediately began a long and ultimately successful search for the funding needed to save Millet’s murals. Ever since “Mail Delivery” came under the protective wing of GSA’s conservation program more than $197,000 has been provided to conserve them and other historic artwork in Cleveland’s Old Federal Building. “The original works of art in GSA’s Fine Arts Collection represent the history, culture and ideals of our country. It is the goal of the Fine Arts Program to conserve these commissioned civic works of art and make them available to the American people,” explained Alicia Weber, national director of the GSA’s Fine Arts Program.

GSA’s first priority was to have the canvases cleaned and stabilized so they could be safely handled and properly stored. Only when that critical goal was reached could any further work be done to restore the paintings. GSA contacted two art conservators regarding Millet’s deteriorating murals: an Indianapolis art museum and an art conservation laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio. Each was sent one mural and asked to demonstrate its approach to stabilizing the canvases. Each did the work requested and returned its panel to the GSA. Nothing more was heard about the murals for the next ten years.

McKay Lodge Chosen for “Mail Delivery”

“I didnít hear anything until the late 1990s” said Robert G. Lodge, president of McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory, Inc., when we visited him at his Oberlin facility in January. A telephone call invited him to the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building in Cleveland (a 32 story office tower built in 1966) to see the condition of Millet’s murals. What he saw that day caused him great concern.

“They were in a closet in wooden crates without tops. They were just stacked, just loose, with chunks of plaster on the back and white lead dust because the adhesive that the mural installers used to adhere [them] to the walls was a mixture of lead carbonate and linseed oil.” Lodge explained that the mixture was a common adhesive, easy to apply and slow to dry, giving installers a short time to adjust the painting’s position before it set and became very hard. “So there was this toxic dust and chunks of plaster, and they were all just sitting on top of each other, quite lumpy.”

After seeing their condition, Lodge returned to Oberlin and drew up a proposal outlining how he would prepare them for safer storage. GSA accepted his proposal and shortly thereafter Millet’s “Mail Delivery” arrived at the McKay Lodge facility in Oberlin, Ohio, where the plaster and toxic dust were removed. The remaining lead adhesive on the murals’s backs was leveled so the panels would lie flat. Then each canvas was rolled, put in a tube and sent to a new GSA fine arts storage facility in Alexandria, Virginia, to await further restoration and preservation.

Pleased with the work McKay Lodge had done to make the murals safe for storage, GSA asked the firm to submit a further proposal for the restoration of the paintings themselves. The requested proposal was presented and accepted, the murals were sent back to Oberlin and in January, 2004, the painstaking work of restoring Millet’s murals began.

New Life for Millet’s Murals

Before the paintings’ restoration could begin, each of the 23 loose canvases had to be mounted to a firm, completely flat surface to provide the necessary stability and smoothness for the work to follow. McKay Lodge conservators mounted the canvases on aluminum panels cut to each mural’s exact size, providing a work surface very similar to the one Millet himself worked on in 1911, when each canvas was stretched taut in a wooden frame.

Conservator Stefan Dedecek
and assistant Dee Pipik
In-painting “Country Post, Germany” Removing old oil films from a mural

In their previous work on the backs of the murals McKay Lodge had removed the loose bits of plaster, adhesive and dust, and leveled whatever remained. While adequate for storage, the backs were far from being as perfectly flat as needed for mounting. Every imperfection, every slight difference in height caused by whatever old plaster or adhesive remained, would be magnified when the murals were attached to the aluminum panel. So, once again, conservators concentrated on the canvases’ backs. Low spots were carefully filled in until a perfectly flat and smooth surface was obtained.

The next step was to attach the murals to the aluminum panels. McKay Lodge employed a safe, but easily reversible method. First, a layer of synthetic wax was applied between each mural and its aluminum backing. Then each panel was placed on a large heated vacuum table where it was covered in plastic, creating a kind of airtight cocoon. A vacuum hose was then connected and the aluminum was heated, melting the wax, while the air inside the plastic was removed, pulling the canvas tight against the panel. The aluminum was then allowed to cool under vacuum, keeping the canvas tight while the wax set. This ingenious method assures that all surface distortions are removed as canvas and backing are joined on the heated vacuum table. If the mural should require removal from its backing the process can be easily undone.

Once all the canvases were mounted to their aluminum backings, McKay Lodge conservators began – at long last – the work of restoring Millet’s paintings. The first step involved cleaning the murals, but doing so uniformly, so that one image wouldnít seem brighter than another. Unfortunately, the “protective” resin that had been applied could not be removed, so a certain yellowing remains on some images. Next, all of the oil paint applied to “touch up” the murals was removed. These early attempts at restoration had consisted of over-painting small areas of Millet’s original work. These more recently applied oils had, over time, darkened and no longer quite matched the older, original oil paint, giving the murals a spotty, uneven look.

“Mail Transfer, North China” with paint losses filled, ready for “in-painting” (left); restored mural (right)

All areas of paint loss – whether from removal of the over-painting or from the stretch marks caused when the murals were peeled from the walls – were then filled with a white, gesso-like material. At the end of this process, each mural appeared, in varying degrees, to be covered with bright white streaks looking something like lightning bolts. Itís only to these white areas that new paint was applied in a process called “in-painting.”

Bob Lodge describes the process as labor-intensive and requiring continuous concentration. “The in-painter must match color, texture and the original handling of adjacent paint,” he said. “It is work that demands continuous focus, sitting still and sometimes concentrating on one small area six hours a day.” The primary responsibility for this painstaking work fell to McKay Lodge conservator Stefan Dedecek. His considerable skill and infinite patience over the course of 18 months produced a stunning result. By spring, 2005, Millet’s “Mail Delivery” was, at last, meticulously restored.

Murals Individually Framed

When originally installed in 1911, “Mail Delivery” appeared as a frieze along the top of the Postmaster’s office walls. Because the space for which they had been created no longer existed, it was decided that, after restoration, the murals should be individually framed and presented as a series. The murals will “appear separate, in a line, whereas before they all joined and worked their way around the walls,” explained Bob Lodge. Hanging them individually with space between them will allow the murals to appear more even in their tone and brightness, he added.

The Bonfoey Gallery, fine arts dealer and Cleveland’s premier framing establishment, provided the custom framing. According to Richard G. Moore, the firm’s owner and president, walnut frames with gold metal leaf facings were sent to McKay Lodge and were installed on each restored panel. Secure in their new frames, Millet’s murals were at last ready to return to the building from which they had been removed 50 years earlier – although this time in an entirely different setting.

McKay Lodge worked closely with the GSA and Cleveland’s Westlake Reed Leskosky, architect for the courthouse renovation, over several months to determine the best location for the murals – a space both easily accessible to the public and large enough to display all 35 scenes. Paul E. Westlake Jr., managing principal and lead designer of the firm, said the locations chosen involved an “exhaustive technical analysis” of light levels, models of the space and arrangement of the murals. “The space thatís been chosen, along with its lighting, palette of colors and materials, will present the murals to best advantage while preserving the historic integrity of the courthouse,” Westlake added.

Next: Additional Restoration Photos

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