Museum cleans vast Confederate murals

By: Katherine Calos
Richmond Times-Dispatch
June 01, 2012

In the background of the mythical meeting of generals in the "Four Seasons of the Confederacy," several people have slowly appeared.

A soldier drinking from a canteen, men leaning on their rifles, a distant flagbearer – the weary troops approach the crest of a hill in the triumphal "Summer" mural, where they are visible for the first time in years thanks to a long-overdue cleaning of the famed Charles Hoffbauer paintings at the Virginia Historical Society.

Since the project began last summer, Richmond Conservation Studio experts have used small cotton swabs to clean a layer of varnish and layers of imbedded dirt from eight panels that are 14 feet tall and as much as 36 feet wide. On difficult days, they might manage to go over a 6-inch-by-6-inch square. On good days, they might clean 2 square feet.

Each round produces visible results, grid by grid, as the sky turns from a mottled gray to a clear blue in "Summer." Two more years are likely before they finish cleaning, spray the surface with a protective varnish, fill in areas where the paint has flaked off, and finally repaint missing details.

It’s by far the biggest project that head conservator Cleo Mullins has undertaken. She estimates the size is equivalent to about 700 portraits, the artwork she more commonly conserves.

For the Virginia Historical Society, "besides the building, these are our biggest artifacts, and the most in need of attention," said Paul Levengood, president and chief executive officer. The project received $375,000 from Save America’s Treasures in the program’s final round of grants.

"Along with the cycloramas at Gettysburg and Grant Park in Atlanta, it’s among the biggest pieces of Civil War art anywhere. It was done by a man who at the time was a prominent French artist. It’s among the signature things we have here and one of our most frequently requested reproductions."

The Confederate Memorial Association commissioned Hoffbauer to paint four murals in its new building in 1913. Midway in the project, he returned to France to fight in World War I. Afterward, he altered many of his sketches based on his own war experiences. He completed the project in 1920. Conservators use his sketches and photographs of the completed murals to guide their work now.

Hoffbauer returned in 1937 for the first restoration effort. Moisture had damaged some of the paint, and the canvases were already darkening because of soot from coal-fired furnaces. He scraped some damaged areas down to the canvas and repainted them.

A restoration attempt in 1949 probably did more harm than good, Mullins has determined. Another restoration 50 years ago probably prevented the damage from getting worse.

Since the new restoration has begun, visitors have told stories about coming to visit with their grandparents to see the scenes that move from a hopeful spring to triumphal summer to embattled autumn to despairing winter, portraying the rise and fall of the Confederacy.

"For most white Virginians, this was a sort of canonical representation of the war," Levengood said. "It was a war that touched everybody. These troops were the fathers, the grandfathers, the cousins of people in 1912.

"Memory is a powerful thing, what people remember or choose to remember. The things we keep tell the story we want to remind ourselves of."

Thus the "Four Seasons of the Confederacy" murals tell the story of a time when Southerners were determined that "they were not going to let only the victors write the history," he said. "They were not going to let these voices vanish. They were very successful at it."

Preserving the artifacts is not taking a position on their arguments, he said.

"Studying history is not about indicting the past, it’s about being open-eyed at how we got to where we are today."

©2012 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

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