Featured, Preservation

Treatment of The Burial of Phocion

In 2008, the Glass House deinstalled and shipped The Burial of Phocion (attributed to Nicolas Poussin) to New York City for conservation treatment by Luca Bonetti for two months. The painting was in very poor condition with active cracking, lifting, and loss. Severely blanched from years of direct sunlight, the figures and buildings painted in the landscape were no longer visible. Documents in Johnson’s files revealed that he would have the painting treated every twelve years, first by Margaret Watherston in 1957; then by Helen Mannoni in1968; and later by Rustin Levenson in 1981.

In 1945, Philip Johnson purchased the painting, The Burial of Phocion (1648), at the advice of Alfred Barr, from Julius Weitzner Gallery in New York for $4,500. Johnson placed the painting inside the Glass House in 1949 which exists to this day and is a key element to the composition of the Glass House. The painting stands adjacent to the Mies van der Rohe furniture in what Johnson referred to as his “living room” and has remained there almost continuously since 1949.

The painting’s classical landscape speaks to Philip Johnson’s approach to the Glass House landscape—an environment that appears natural yet is highly cultivated. Johnson spent his entire life editing and cultivating what became over 49 acres of the Glass House site that includes fourteen structures, mature trees and plantings, as well as the stonewalls scattered throughout the property from its previous farm use.

In addition to the painting in the Glass House collection, there are two other versions of The Burial of Phocion (also attributed to Nicolas Poussin).. The other two paintings are housed in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and the Louvre in Paris, France. The Louvre’s painting is thought to be the original painting. However, in Johnson’s object file, there is a handwritten but undated statement by Poussin scholar Walter Friedlander expressing his opinion that the painting owned by Johnson was of superior quality and more likely to be the original painting. It is now largely accepted that the painting in the Glass House is not Poussin’s original, but it is considered de l’epoche.

The goal of the 2008 treatment was conservative, only to stabilize the surface of the painting. Before packing, the painting was treated with cyclododecane spray to secure loose paint surfaces during transit. Upon its receipt in New York, after the dissipation of cyclododecane, Bonetti began treatment. Precise local consolidation of individual raised cracks was performed using the Beva 371 with multiple applications followed by controlled gentle heat and pressure. Facing was applied to the areas with minute crack networks (almost the entire surface of the painting), using Japanese paper imbibed with Beva 371 and mild heat and light pressure with tacking irons. Removal of the facing was done with controlled application of naphtha, once consolidation was complete. The backing board was changed from a deteriorating black paper to Coroplast.

Conservation Team

Trained in Switzerland at the Centro scolastico per le industrie artistiche (CSIA) di Lugano, Luca Bonetti opened his conservation studio in New York City in 1983.

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