In the spring of 2013, San Franciscans were outraged to discover that a cherished Maxfield Parrish wall painting had been removed from its home in the Palace Hotel and sent to New York to be sold. Prior to auction, it was to be cleaned of the hundred-plus years of accumulated grime and accretions it had been subjected to while hanging in The Pied Piper Bar. Thus, even after the Palace Hotel had acquiesced to public sentiment and agreed to return it to San Francisco, the painting remained in New York to be treated.
Harriet Irgang Alden, of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates, had experience with other Parrish wall paintings, and knew the treatment concerns that were inherent to his working methods. The artist alternated thin transparent glazes of brilliant, unmixed pigments with saturating layers of varnish. This made the removal of a restorer’s varnish on a Parrish painting a fraught process that is typically not undertaken, because of the likelihood of disrupting the original layers. The planned treatment outcome only focused on grime removal. The immediate uniqueness of this Parrish wall painting was in the details of its construction. Despite its substantial size at 5 feet by 16 feet, the Pied Piper was not painted in sections, as Parrish’s other wall paintings were. The painting appeared to have been shipped rolled from the artist’s studio to San Francisco, where a stretcher was constructed for it—possibly of redwood due to the incredible length of the members. Additionally, the back of the original canvas remained visible, and displayed a ticking pattern similar to the canvas used for an 1895 Old King Cole painting. The unlined canvas, as well as the unique stretcher, provides new material evidence of Parrish’s working methods.
Unlike previous Parrish treatments, grime removal on the Pied Piper had revealed a broken varnish layer. Apart from thick brush drips and a pockmarked appearance, there were passages of flaking, which curiously did not reveal dull, unvarnished paint beneath. Instead, beneath the discolored upper varnish there appeared to be a clear, glossy layer of a different varnish, and beneath that were the brilliant blues typical to Parrish’s paintings. FTIR analysis at the Museum of Modern Art in New York verified that there were two distinct varnishes: the crumbling upper layer was an alkyd, and the lower a decolorized shellac. Alkyds like this alcohol-acid polymer were not produced prior to the 1920’s, so they could not have been original to Parrish’s 1909 Pied Piper. The decolorized shellac was stable and was still firmly adhered to the paint beneath. Both original layers had actually been protected from UV and bar patron damage by the alkyd addition.
After an aqueous cleaning removed the grime layer, the conservators were faced with an exciting prospect: could they remove the restorer’s varnish, and in doing so, reveal a pristine Maxfield Parrish painting? Solvents would penetrate through both layers and affect the pigment. A more complex process was tested: methyl cellulose in water was applied, and removed after five to ten minutes, to soften the alkyd layer. Though in initial attempts a scalpel was used, the conservators found that the softened alkyd varnish would lift easily and safely by being pulled up with tape using the ‘Texas Strappo’ method. This technique was successful, and revealed a brilliant and unharmed original varnish layer, but it was also incredibly time consuming.
The Palace Hotel declined to extend the treatment of the Pied Piper to include a months-long varnish removal. The alkyd removal test area was toned to blend back in, the painting was varnished with Regalrez, and the Pied Piper returned home. The non-original alkyd varnish remains, still degrading, but it continues to protect the pristine painting and original varnish beneath. In the future, it will be possible to remove the new Regalrez varnish with naphtha, which does not affect the original shellac varnish. It will also be possible to remove the alkyd layer with the solvent and mechanical methods outlined in the test, and revarnish with Regalrez, and possibly a UV stabilizer. Maxfield Parrish’s vibrant original may not be fully unveiled, but until then, the beloved painting is safely on display.