There are some things in the Museum that are always changing—exhibition galleries, works on paper, portrait miniatures. But sometimes we make smaller changes to those galleries that seem to be “permanent”. For instance, every once in a while, individual artworks disappear from the walls and are replaced by others. Have you ever wondered why?
In today’s post, we’ll take a look at two different reasons that paintings in the European galleries have gone off view and learn a little about the things that replaced them.
First, let’s look at the Layton Art Collection’s fabulous painting Homer and His Guide by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. This monumental painting—it’s almost 7 feet tall!— usually hangs in the Academic Gallery, S200. It’s not on view right now because it is out on loan.
Museums regularly loan artwork to other museums for special exhibitions. The entire process of exhibition organization was related by our former design curator Mel Buchanan in a five-part series called “Making an Exhibition.” You can find part 1 here and then find links to the rest of the posts at the bottom of that page.
Homer and His Guide was requested as a loan to an exhibition called Classicisms, organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Although Homer is an extremely important painting in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s gallery, the Curatorial Department felt that the exhibition’s scholarship was strong and that Homer would be given excellent context if included in the show. You can see the painting by visiting the Smart before Classicisms closes on June 11.
Taking such an integral painting off view meant that we had to figure out what to do with the hole left in the gallery. The replacement had to fit the theme of the gallery (Academic art) and fit the bare spot on the wall (which, as I mentioned, is significant in size!).
In this case, the painting we decided to bring out of storage is called The Homecoming. It was made in 1881 by Swiss artist Benjamin Vautier the Elder (1829–1898), who was was one of the most celebrated genre painters of the nineteenth century.
The everyday scenes of nineteenth-century German genre painting were considered sentimental and trivial by critics of later periods, but it must be remembered that they are a product of their time. This is what the German people (and a lot of collectors in the United States) wanted: an idealized look at traditional life that was far removed from the troubles of a society in flux due to the industrial revolution. Not to mention that Vautier and Defregger were talented painters and produced canvases of high technical quality.
The second painting that is currently off view is The Interruption by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (Austrian, 1793–1865). Usually, it hangs in the gallery that shows our nineteenth century German artwork, S201. This painting is off view because it is being conserved.
Art conservation is when an artwork is cleaned, preserved, or repaired. The specialists who do this work are called conservators. You can learn more about art conservation at the Milwaukee Art Museum here.
What kind of treatement was needed for The Interruption? Take a look below at the painting before conservation. Do you see how the light appears to be yellow? In a painting by Waldmüller, the light should be bright, crisp, and cheery, like in this painting at the Museum Georg Schäfer in Schweinfurt, Germany. The overall yellow color of the painting is because it was covered with a discolored and grimy varnish. Artists often apply varnish to protect the paint and to brighten the colors. Over time, however, the varnish goes through chemical changes that make it yellow, and dirt in the air sticks to the surface.
The Interruption also had a few places of paint loss—such as a small abrasion on the red skirt—and some cracking of the paint surface. The conservator recommended securing any loose paint, inpainting losses, and removing and replacing the old varnish. This treatment will make the painting look its best!
In the meantime, we’ve taken the opportunity to use the spot where The Interruption usually hangs to bring out of storage two paintings that are always popular with our visitors. Peasant Woman and Peasant Man are pendent paintings by Carl Kronberger (Austrian, 1841–1921).
Kronberger made a name for himself with small-scale head studies. This pair could be considered a masterpiece, exhibiting perfectly his extremely fine painting technique and quest for naturalistic detail.
He uses dramatic light to throw the heads into amazingly realistic relief against a dark background. By documenting every wrinkle on the face of the old man and woman, the paintings read like a life story. Imagine, each painting is just only 7 inches high and 5 inches wide!
Eventually, both Homer and His Guide and The Interruption will come back out on view, so make sure you take time to find their replacements in the galleries!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.