In the fall of 2018, Niagara Falls left New York. The 1804 painting by Antoine Phillippe d’Orleans, Duc de Montpensier, departed its home at the New-York Historical Society in late September and traveled to France’s Palace of Versailles, where it was part of an exhibition about the July Monarchy, entitled Louis Philippe and Versailles.
For a painting that’s well over two centuries old, sending it abroad was not as easy as booking a flight or calling FedEx. There’s a strict regimen that the painting conservators follow here at New-York Historical before a work is exhibited or given out on loan, a system that involves several months of work to carefully inspect each piece and determine its overall condition and any treatment it needs.
New-York Historical has a vast collection of paintings ranging from the 17th century all the way to the present day. There are more than 2,500 paintings total, but less than one percent is actually displayed within the museum at any given time. While most of the collection remains in storage, there are quite a number of paintings that get to travel to different museums through our active loan program and traveling exhibitions. Both of these avenues are an essential component to reaching other communities that may not have the chance to visit the Museum. Through these programs, it gives audiences the ability to learn about different topics in American History through our collection.
Niagara Falls actually presents a fascinating intersection of American and French history. The Louis Philippe and Versailles exhibition focused on the King of the French, Louis Philippe I, and his decision to turn the former royal residence into a museum dedicated to French art and history in the 1830s. Niagara Falls was painted by Louis Philippe’s younger brother, Antoine Philippe, who was exiled from France during the French Revolution and moved to the United States. He was later joined by Louis Philippe in exile and the two traveled around the newly-formed country between 1797 and 1798. It was on this trip that they encountered the mammoth Niagara Falls of western New York. After their journey, Antoine Philippe traveled to London, where he executed this painting in 1804, based on his memories of the visit, and shortly before his untimely death in 1807. Louis Philippe, of course, would go on to return to France and later ascend to the throne in 1830.
Niagara Falls then, held a poignant place in the Versailles exhibition. An oil-on-canvas work measuring about 37 by 53 inches, it was last exhibited at New-York Historical in the 2017 exhibition Saving Washington. In preparation for its fall travel, the painting was brought out of storage for an in-depth assessment of its condition. Conservators generally look to see if there are any structural issues, as well as aesthetic issues. These two components hold significant weight in the determination if a painting can travel and whether or not treatment is required.
In the case of Niagara Falls, it was determined that the overall structure was safe for travel, but there were some minor aesthetic issues that needed to be addressed. There’d been some older restoration work done that was starting to become noticeable—touch-up layers of paint called overpainting—which was taking away from the overall effect of the piece.
Before diving in, conservators hashed out the different approaches they could take. While treatments can become elaborate and drawn out, sometimes the best methods are minor. (“Less is more” is a guiding principle in conservation.) A conservator’s goal is not to make a piece of artwork look brand-new, but to preserve the state it’s in and extend its lifespan. The most important part of any treatment is that all materials used are reversible, so future conservators are able to remove old treatments and use new ones that are proven to be more effective.
For Niagara Falls, it was decided to tone back those sections overpainting along with inpainting, or filling in areas where the original media has been lost. The treatment was as simple as it sounds, and it allowed the composition to be reintegrated and more readable to a gallery viewer. All the better for the painting’s unveiling in the halls of Versailles.
Written by Katie Casbean, Museum Division, Conservation Intern
Generous support for conservation initiatives at New-York Historical is provided by the Sherman Fairchild Foundation