Hundreds of cracks scale Dominican University’s striking painting, Madonna of the Harpies. They crisscross over the face of the Virgin Mary, over the cherubs and through the black background.
Barry Bauman, a River Forest resident who has made a name for himself in the painting restoration business, has finished fixing those cracks. But it’s a long process. He painstakingly matches colors and paints between each crack, a process that takes about six months.
It’s people like Bauman who help great works of art stay great. After being in the business of painting restoration for more than 30 years, he’s now offering his services through Barry Bauman Conservation, a nonprofit that will restore great works for just the cost of supplies.
That’s about 10 percent of what Bauman, or any painting conservationist, would normally charge for restoring a painting.
Now why would someone with Bauman’s skills give away his services dirt-cheap?
Because there’s a need, Bauman says. Many small institutions can’t afford to pay for expert restoration, even when they need it.
“These institutions can barely pay for light and heat,” he says. “They should take the money and spend it on something else in the museum.”
Although the low price tag is new, restoring paintings is no new thing for Bauman. He studied art history in graduate school at the University of Chicago and worked in the conservation department at the Art Institute of Chicago and as a visiting conservator in other major art museums for 11 years. In 1983, he founded his own business, the Chicago Conservation Center.
For Bauman, the difference between his previous for-profit painting restoration business and his current nonprofit model is the quality of the paintings. He isn’t just working on paintings for people’s houses; he’s working on important works by skilled artists.
“Most Illinois artists will get to me eventually,” he says.
One example that Bauman considers great art is Death Pursuing Youth, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner is a famous African-American painter who portrays people of color with dignity. But this piece of art had been through the elements by the time Bauman started working on it. (See sidebar for more details.)
“It’s a piece of art that shows culture and African-American history,” Bauman says. “Look how enjoyable it is to save for future people.”
Bauman has already started to work on several paintings in Oak Park and River Forest. Harpies is the third of four Madonna paintings he has offered to fix for Dominican University.
“I think it’s wonderful, what he offered to do for us,” says Dorothy De Spain, who donated to Dominican to salvage Madonna of the Harpies and three other Madonna paintings in their collection. “Restoration is expensive.”
The Madonna paintings probably ended up scaled with cracks because they weren’t stored properly, Bauman says. The damage shows how important it is to create a controlled climate with stable humidity for art.
De Spain went to school at Dominican and has always loved the cluster of four Madonna paintings. “They kind of beckoned to me to help,” she says. “Beauty is the language of God-I’m just very happy that these can be restored to their full beauty.”
Another recent Bauman project is a brightly colored landscape from the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest called “Point Lobos, Calif.,” by Louis Sharp. The landscape had been clouded by dirt and films, and the original varnish had darkened.
“You lose the sense of space” when the painting has aged like that, Bauman says. “Cleaning is such a thrill. California is all about sun and light and color, and it’s that mood he’s catching, that spirit.”
Reading the artist’s mind like that and catching the original intent is important to Bauman. “You’re looking at a guy who’s invisible,” he says of his involvement. “It’s the art that will stay.”
Some of the paintings Bauman receives are torn, peeling or cracked. Some are covered with a film of dirt, grease and smoke. Here’s the process he goes through to restore his paintings to their original glory:
Cleaning: Bauman removes everything the artist didn’t paint on the canvas, including whatever previous restoration work has already been done to the painting. There’s a level of chemistry involved in this step, Bauman says. “You have to test a variety to find out what will dissolve the masking films,” he says. He consults his knowledge of chemicals and paints, and considers the age of the work before trying anything. “It’s not like you go to a shelf and there’s some bottle called ‘Miracle Mild.'”
“I love to clean pictures, to see the original colors and the illusion of space,” he says. “It’s like the painting being reborn.”
Structural work: Some of the Bauman’s projects, such as his current assignment, Death Pursuing Youth, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, have suffered major damage before they arrive at his studio. Tanner’s painting, which is owned by the DuSable Museum of African-American history in Chicago, was no longer in condition fit for a museum when it came to Bauman. He had to repair wooden stretchers, fix paint that was flaking off, and reinforce a well-worn canvas. Sometimes he even replaces the frame with one that can expand and contract with the weather.
A layer of clear varnish: This protects the painting and allows future conservationists to clear away Bauman’s restoration work without disturbing the original painting.
In-painting: This is where Bauman retouches lost areas. It’s also where you understand why he needed so much training to enter this line of work. “I had to learn the language of drawing and painting,” he says. “If you know how to paint something, you know how to fix it.
“It’s very rewarding to me to have the artist look as good as possible,” he adds.