Here is a question that we are often asked: Can I clean/dust my painting? The answer to this is yes, but you need to know how.
To begin with -- if you purchased your work from a gallery, they should have had a conservator take care of any ‘major’ cleaning that was needed. This would include the removal of any old/discolored varnish and surface dirt. The conservator will also apply a new, protective, layer of varnish -- to help seal the paint surface. If, on the other hand, you acquired your work from some other source (i.e. inherited a work that has been in the family for many years) you may want to have a professional look at it to determine if the work needs to be professionally cleaned. Once this is done the work will have a bright /fresh appearance and is ready to be displayed in your home.
Paintings, unlike many other items in your home, need very little day-to-day care. However, after the work has been hanging in your home for a period of time, you may feel the need to dust it. Not that long ago, I was speaking with two – long time – clients and friends. Each of them had decided that it was time to dust their works. The first, in a joking way, asked if he could use his leaf blower … we all had a little laugh and I told him it would be fine, but I could not guarantee that the painting would still be on the wall when he finished!! The second asked – in a more serious tone – if they could use a can of compressed air? My immediate response was: you could, but you may end up blowing some, if not all, of the paint off the surface! Again, we all laughed and then I went on to explain that what they needed to keep in mind is that the upper paint layer of a work of art is just one of many layers that you will find on a painting. Before an artist begins to paint they cover the canvas with a layer of gesso, and some artists use more than one layer. Often, a base color is placed on top of the gesso and then the artist begins to paint. Some artists will even go over areas a number of times – creating thicker layers in certain areas of a work. Over time some of these layers may become loose or unstable and a strong blast of air will cause them to peel away from the canvas … leaving you an area of paint loss … something we should try and avoid.
Here is an interesting story from my younger days (well, I am not really that old, but it does sound good)! Years ago a friend, at one of the European auction houses, told me that a country dealer had attended a poorly publicized country estate sale and purchased a large (and what may have been important) Old Master painting. After the sale this country dealer wanted to have the painting looked at as soon as possible, so he decided to tie the painting to the top of his car and drive to London. Well, as I am sure you can all guess by now, when he arrived at the sale room he was horrified to see that the canvas was stripped of all the paint, leaving an old blank canvas … yes, somewhere along the M5 all the paint was blown off!!! It is a shame that no one will ever know if it was a long lost masterpiece. While this is an extreme example, it does illustrate the point that a strong gust of air can, and probably will, cause some damage to a work of art.
In a typical home a painting should not be dusted more than once or twice a year and when you decide that now is the time, please make sure you use a sable (makeup), badger-hair, or soft white bristle Japanese brush. You should never use a feather duster as it may actually scratch the surface of the painting. In addition, before starting, please examine the paint surface. You want to make sure that there are no “active” areas … spots where the paint appears to be lifting or peeling off. If you see areas that look unstable, or notice an area where the paint has come off, please do not touch the work … your next step is to contact a professional --- either your dealer or a conservator. Keep in mind that as paintings get older they begin to dry out and crack (much like human skin) and there will be times when professional help is needed. There is no need to panic since most problems, when caught early, can be corrected with little effort and expense.
I also suggest that if you plan on renovating your home that you, at the very least, cover your works of art. You may even find it beneficial to take the works off the wall, wrap them up, and put them in a closet. You will not only avoid the need to dust the works, over and over again, but might even prevent any serious damage from happening. We have seen, all too often, paintings that have been damaged by construction workers … a ladder in the wrong place can make a BIG mess!!
Over time, you will find that the one item that needs the most attention will be the frame. Typically, the top and bottom edges of a frame will catch most of the dust and this can be cleaned when need be; but again please do this only occasionally. I suggest that you either use a very soft dry cloth or the same brush you would use on the front of the painting --- a light dusting is all it should need. Never use water or household chemicals when cleaning/dusting the frame. If your frame is water-gilded, using a cloth with water on it can remove the gold -- using the wrong chemicals will have a similar effect.
One more thing you need to be aware of, you should never try to clean the front of your painting with water or chemicals. As I mentioned earlier, most oil paintings are/were painted over a layer of gesso – many of which are water based. If you were to use water to clean the painting, you not only run the risk of discoloring the paint surface, but also reactivating the gesso and this can cause the paint to fall off the canvas. The use of household chemicals is also a big No! No! Over the years we have seen many works where the paint has been wiped away. When the owners were questioned about the ‘skinned’ condition of the paint surface, it was revealed that the individual cleaning the home would often use one rag to dust the furniture and then wipe down the paintings. Over time the furniture polish that was on the rag actually removed the paint from the surface of the painting. Not a pretty sight!!
In closing I will say this: we rarely touch the works of art that are hanging in our home. We do not regularly dust the paintings, and only occasionally dust the frames. Sometimes … less is more!
This recent headline in the Antique Trade Gazette caught my attention: Art and Antiques remain a first-class investment say Zurich. The article went on to say: FINANCIAL services giant Zurich have just published figures showing art and antiques to be one of the most lucrative investments against the backdrop of falling stock markets.
The company sponsored a worldwide index from Art Market Research with the specific intention of tracking the performance of a High Net Worth policyholder’s collection, using information collated by Zurich Private Clients. The results, which were used to advise policyholders of changes within the art market, showed a typical High Net Worth collection had increase in value by 785 per cent over the past 25 years.
Just a little more ‘food for thought’!!
I do want to keep stressing that it is important to buy the best you can. Do not settle for a second rate work and please make sure that you are buying a work from the right period and that its condition is the best it can be.
Howard L. Rehs
© Rehs Galleries, Inc., New York City- October 2002
Gallery Updates: As of October 1st we are back on our normal hours: Monday – Friday 10:00am – 5:30pm and all other times by appointment. We have been actively searching the globe for exciting works of art and are pleased to offer new works by: Daniel Ridgway Knight, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Eugene Verboeckhoven, Édouard Cortès, Antoine Blanchard, Sally Swatland and Heidi Coutu. Some of these works will be featured in upcoming ads in the following magazines: Architectural Digest (November issue); Harper’s Bazaar (November issue) and Art & Antiques (November issue).
Virtual Exhibitions: This month we have added two works to – Rehs Galleries: A Visual History… The first is an early, and important, painting by the British marine artist Thomas Luny (1759 – 1837) depicting the Engagement Between Sir George Brydges Rodney and the Spanish Squadron, Commanded by Don Juan de Langara, Near Cape St. Vincent, January 16, 1780. This work was painted in 1782, when Luny was just 23 years old, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year. The second, an exotic work by the British Victorian artist Arthur Drummond (1871 – 1951) titled Victorian Fantasy, was painted in 1893, when the artist was 22 years old. Rehs Galleries sold both paintings in 1985. The direct URL's for these exhibits are as follows:
Thomas Luny - Battle of Cape St. Vincent
Arthur Drummond - Victorian Fantasy
Next Month: Since I have now started talking about cleaning a work of art, I thought I might explore the conservation and restoration aspects.