Published: February 28, 2012
When the Smithsonian American Art Museum puts one of its key recent acquisitions on display this summer, visitors will be able to admire not only the striking work created by American artist Samuel Colman (1832‱920) “Clearing Storm at Gibraltar,” circa 1860, but also the extraordinary restored Nineteenth Century frame that surrounds the gem.
The painting entered the museum’s collection in 2011, a gift of Diane Leroy Spurr, but did not go immediately on view. That is because the original frame was in need of restoration, so the museum called on Eli Wilner & Company, based in New York City, to undertake a project that was both challenging yet personally satisfying for the firm’s eponymous principal.
Wilner’s team of artisans †his atelier comprises 30 such individuals, including 15 frame conservators †saw that time clearly had not been kind to the original frame for Colman’s painting. Wilner’s skilled craftspeople painstakingly brought the frame back to its original splendor. “It took 200 hours of work to complete,” explained Wilner, of the project that was undertaken at his firm’s Long Island City, facility, about 20 minutes from Manhattan.
“The most difficult part was repairing the sand textured panel that is part of the frame’s design,” he continued. “These textured designs appeared on the finest frames from the Nineteenth Century, and such a frame would have been expensive for the original owner.”
Spurr said that as a child, she remembered seeing the painting in the house that her mother and stepfather shared. “I inherited this painting 30 years ago,” she said. “It was extremely dirty †you could barely see the Rock. The frame was in terrible condition. When I had the painting cleaned, the signature appeared, the reflections glimmered in the water, the storm clouds became visible, and I realized what a beautiful little gem I had. Up to the time that I donated it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it has been hanging in my living room but not in the original frame †which I saved and put in the basement.”
Spurr believed it was important to save the original, elaborate frame, and now museum visitors can be glad she did as well.
As for the painting itself, although Colman spent his first decade as an artist painting typical Hudson River subjects, by 1860 he was off on a peripatetic career that included visits to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt. Gibraltar, where his first trip abroad began, seemed to especially capture his imagination. By 1860, its long and colorful history, signaled by the gunports in the rock, was still a drawing card, but its daily routine was that of a commercial crossroads, whose story Colman tells with a small flotilla of sailing ships and one or two steamships at the right. Above these, the rock rises to an impressive height, with only a tenuous diagonal connecting it to the Spanish coast.
Through the generous support of James Dicke II, a longtime supporter of the museum and recent chair of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s board of commissioners, the frame is now complete, packed and ready to go. It will be reunited with the Colman painting and is slated to be hung on the museum’s second floor this summer, according to Sean Morello, the firm’s gallery manager.
It will join Colman’s “Storm King on the Hudson,” 1866, one of the premier Hudson River landscape paintings in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. For information, 212-744-6521 or www.eliwilner.com . For information about the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 202-633-1000 or www.americanart.si.edu .
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