Published: July 25, 2000
NEW YORK CITY – A dramatic, newly restored 1843 painting of the interior of Mammoth Cave by Marie-Francois-Regis Gignoux has been restored as part of the conservation program for the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture at the New-York Historical Society opening in November. The Luce Center, on the society’s fourth floor, will be a state-of-the-art display of over 40,000 historical objects from the museum collection of painting, sculpture, historical artifacts and decorative art, many of which have never before been on public view.
In his dramatically lit interior view of Mammoth Cave, Gignoux looks from deep in the cave across the so-called “Rotunda” toward the entrance, which is illuminated by an almost mystical light from the outside. From the War of 1812 onward nitre (lime nitrate) used in making saltpeter, one of the essential elements for gun powder, was mined and prepared from bat guano in the Rotunda.
In Gignoux’s canvas a large, roaring fire has been built, whose artificial light contrasts with the natural light of the entrance, creating a juxtaposition of heavenly versus infernal, natural versus artificial elements. At the left are four figures, which may be preparing lime nitrate or may be merely spelunkers.
Having studied with Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Gignoux immigrated tot he United States in 1840, living in Brooklyn and establishing himself as an important exponent of the Hudson River School. He became the teacher of George Inness and was among the first to join the illustrious group at the famous Tenth Street Studio.
The cleaning of the painting has revealed a previously unknown signature. The canvas is signed at an angle on a rock at the lower left (the artist’s preferred place to sign), as though it were a graffiti inscription; its original frame is also inscribed with the artist’s surname. The current impressive frame was borrowed from a portrait of the same period. The format of its liner echoes the arches that Gignoux painted inside Mammoth Cave, increasing the Romantic, sublime effects of the cavernous space and reinforcing the implied allusion to a natural cathedral.
Mammoth Cave, in Edmonson County in central Kentucky, is part of an extensive system of caves (with a combined length of at least 300 miles), carved in soluble St. Louis limestone and Chester sandstone by the percolating underground waters of the Green River.
Many factors point to a date around 1843 for the Gignoux canvas. First, its verso bears a stencil of the company that made it, which was located at 306 Broadway from around 1840-41 to 1852-53. Second, the painting is similar in its size, vertical format, and style to other early works by Gignoux that still reveal a contemporary European influence, for example that of Francois-Marius Granet. Furthermore, it is known that Gignoux visited Kentucky in the 1840s. This work is probably the painting exhibited at the national Academy of Design in 1843 as no. 181 (Mammoth Cave in Kentucky [for sale]).
A photograph also on view shows the condition of the painting before treatment. Aging and oxidation had caused the natural resin varnish coatings to darken, rendering the image barely discernible. This discolored varnish was removed with solvents, as was later repainting which covered damage along the bottom. The canvas was removed from the stretcher and humidified to relax distortions, and a strip lining was adhered along the perimeter to reinforce the weakened tacking edges and to allow for re-stretching of the canvas onto the stretcher.
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