Not be left out, this one found me too……
Ten years ago, my local art dealer of a sort would bring me restorative work too….and he brought me a reverse-glass painting of George Washington, much like the Gilbert Stewart version.
Eglomise paintings, as they are called, can be very valuable because they don’t last, so if yours is fine, that is something of value. Painting on the back of glass makes a fast easy show at first, but is vulnerable to being destroyed when the glass breaks or it often peels off from excessive heat or dampness, or just poor care. And that was this one. But the painting and its beautiful frame NEEDED me…I said yes, I’d restore it.
I began setting out the parts of the frame as I took off the back to access the paint. Then I stopped - the picture did not only seem old, it was old. Triangular nails sent me to my computer and Holy Antiques Roadshow time followed.
This was quite possibly one of the famous ones from America’s first big arts fraud lawsuits. Gilbert Stewart had lots of children to support with his work and so obtained permission to make and sell copies of his most famous paintings. It was not unsual when he sold a copy of his Washington to an entrepreneur on the condition that the man not exploit it.
Washington had recently passed away and so his images were top popularity. The entrepreneur, of course, immediately sent the painting to China where a large number of reverse glass paintings were done, sealed shut to dry en route back to America and so , by the measure of the day, quickly available to to customers who wished to have a portrait of the Hero to remember him by.
When the trick was learned , Steward sued and many of the copies were destroyed and Stewart won his case. But some got by and one is at Mount Vernon and one is here at Connecticut’s New Britain Museum of American Art ….and one is in hiding at my old dealer’s house till they decide what to do with it.
Its value won’t be certain until tests are done - a chip is taken to compare the DNA to authentic others of the paintings. I did a nice job, well-researched, on the restoration , after the owner insisted that I be the one to do it. And I did it carefully so that, authenticity could be proven, and if true, a fancier restorer could easily remove my work and replace it with his/her own.
But what fun it was to do that work, and enjoy the beauty of the finished picture and lovely frame , glowing like new. The photo here is not a good one. I will try to find a better one. But what adventure. Think of all the life created by one painting! The original and its subjects , artist, promoters , newsfolk, and then the copies and the fuss that followed. And Stewart’s children fed on the proceeds!
The famous quote, “Art is life is art is life is art…..” seems to be the one in this case, certainly.
I wonder , years later, what the owners will do with it, and think I may invite them to do the DNA proof journey with me one day soon. Or should the mystery just remain a mystery? Fun.