Conservators Preserve 90-year-old Fallingwater Painting

June 6, 2019

The portrait of Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. hangs in the dining area

This portrait of Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. hangs in the dining area at Fallingwater. A yellowed varnish coating is apparent in this photograph, taken in 2010 by Christopher Little.

It’s among Fallingwater’s most cherished works of art displayed throughout the house. Excursion, the portrait of Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., which hangs near the dining table, was commissioned by Liliane Kaufmann from its artist, Victor Hammer, in 1929 while Hammer was living in Florence, Italy.

Hammer holds a special place within the Kaufmann family history as Edgar jr. studied painting under Hammer’s tutelage in Europe in the early 1930s, and the Fallingwater collection also includes examples of his typographic work. Painted years before the completion of Fallingwater, but while the family still vacationed at their Bear Run cabin, Edgar Sr. is portrayed in an open-collared shirt and sweater vest and posed holding a walking stick—in tranquil contrast to his workaday suit-and-tie persona.

Though 90 years old, Excursion officially came into the collection as a gift of Edgar Kaufmann jr. in 1989 and was displayed in the offices of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and later in the director’s office at Fallingwater before returning to its current place in the house facing the hearth in 1994.

Conservation of Victor Hammer’s Excursion

During the conservation of Victor Hammer’s Excursion, conservators painstakingly removed grime and nicotine residue, with cleaned portion shown on the left.

The conservation of Excursion, painted in egg tempera and oil on board, was perplexing in that Hammer affixed a handwritten note to the back of the work: “Do not use alcohol on the surface of the painting.” Limiting the treatment options presented by this, conservators removed dust using brushes and surface grime using water-based enzymes applied by cotton swabs.

Nicotine build-up and soot particles coated the varnish covering the paint layer, and this was mechanically removed using soft wooden sticks. Images provided by the conservator at various stages of removing the discolored varnish exposed the stunning effects of age and pollutants, revealing sharper details such as the ribbing on Kaufmann’s sweater and fine hairs along his bare arm. Where damage had penetrated the varnish and caused paint removal, a process of infill painting was completed using hand-ground pigments in a synthetic resin to match the surrounding original paint color.

While artwork conservation often seems like a dramatic move, caring for the paintings and other works in the Fallingwater collection are as much preventative as they are reparative. New technological approaches often combine with tried-and-true methods to safely return irreplaceable handmade works of art to their best possible condition. This effort was part of a recent series of art conservation made possible by the generosity of Toby Smith and Thomas Lytle, and will now provide our curatorial team with a baseline of each painting’s condition, alleviating the need for anything more than minor cleaning in the years to come.

To support this and similar preservation and conservation efforts at Fallingwater, become a Friend of Fallingwater today. In addition to knowing you are saving an architectural masterpiece and its surrounding landscape, your membership affords you ticket privileges and discounts in our online store.