Jules Dupré’s “Animals Crossing a Bridge,” painted in the mid-19th century, hangs in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, among the rest of a collection of antique art from the collection of copper king William A. Clark.
But Dupré’s painting is the only one accompanied by a picture on an easel to its left, depicting a “before” version of the restored piece of art.
“This was the state of it when we recovered it,” Curator Jeremy Canwell said. “But we don’t know why.”
The “before” image shows a dark painting that looks visibly dirty and has facing tissue — used to prevent peeling paint — plastered over it like packing tape.
The painting itself, following a six-month restoration, is large and vivid, with bright blue sky, beautifully rendered farm animals and detailed landscapes; wildflowers, shrubs and varieties of grass poking through the underbrush.
“That’s part of the story of this collection,” Canwell said of the two images side by side. “This isn’t a gift of a brand-new pickup truck with a bow on it in the driveway. It comes with bumps and scars, and people should be aware of that.”
The Dupré painting was one of eight paintings and a sculpture given to the MMAC by the now-closed Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., which housed Clark’s extensive art collection for around 90 years.
None of the other pieces needed immediate restoration, though a handful were given new frames, Canwell said. Private funding from Suzanne and Bruce Crocker financed the Dupré restoration, which landed in the five figures and took a full six months.
Dupré’s “Animals Crossing a Bridge” was by far in the worst shape, likely due to previous restoration jobs in the 1920s that used antiquated techniques.
One method involved covering the front of the painting with canvas and flipping it over, then sanding the original canvas off the paint. A new canvas would be applied to the backside before flipping the whole thing back over and removing the front-side canvas: Voila! A restored painting.
Canwell pointed out visible cracking in the white-painted sections of “Animals Crossing a Bridge,” which is common in white lead paint from the period. The cracking was exacerbated over repeated stretching, he surmised, eyeing the webbing patterns that pointed toward a corner.
“A lot of the problem lies in the white lead paint,” he said. “It just cracks in buckles, almost geologically.”
Seattle-based restorer Peter Malarkey completed the job in a careful and conservative manner, Canwell noted. Malarkey even drove the painting out instead of shipping it.
On its return to Missoula, the painting went straight to the Art Attic to be reframed, in a modern Italian frame that neatly matches the antique aesthetic of the original, without weighing some 30 pounds.
Then, on the wall to join its European brethren.
Other paintings show their age, Canwell said, and some have the same cracked-paint issue as “Animals Crossing a Bridge.” The only other piece that really needs work at the moment, however is the “Madonna and Child” sculpture.
While Malarkey was in Missoula, he worked on stabilizing the piece, by using a paintbrush to put glue into some large cracks. The glue, by the way, is made of sturgeon air bladders, Canwell happily pointed out.
“It’s apparently ideal,” he said, crediting Malarkey for his generosity and care.
“It’s a very specific skill set,” Canwell continued. “And there’s just a tremendous amount of judgement involved.”
But with the way “Animals Crossing a Bridge” turned out, with its bright, clear-eyed representation of the Oise River plains northeast of Paris, Canwell knew they’d found the right conservator.
“Our permanent collection largely, predominately, is made of work that’s given to us,” he said. “But it’s not the same as other gifts. It comes with responsibility.”