Worcester Art Museum to Unveil Restored Hogarth Portraits

Pair of portraits of William and Elizabeth James by William Hogarth at the Worcester Art Museum.
Pair of portraits of William and Elizabeth James by William Hogarth at the Worcester Art Museum.
(Worcester Art Museum)

In an intimate exhibition that explores their recent conservation, the Worcester Art Museum this month presents the first paintings by William Hogarth to enter an American museum collection. On view from July 19 through February 8, 2015, as the next iteration of WAM’s Jeppson Idea Lab, Portraits by William Hogarth will display the techniques and findings from the yearlong conservation process, made possible by a nearly $35,000 grant from the TEFAF Museum Restoration Fund.

Painted by Hogarth in 1744, William James and Elizabeth James were prominently displayed at the Museum for almost 100 years following their acquisition in 1910. Removed from view for a 2008 gallery renovation, the pendant portraits were long considered to be in good condition before WAM’s conservators embarked on this extensive project. The Jeppson Idea Lab, a series that presents single or small selections of objects from WAM’s permanent collection to engage viewers in the Museum’s conservation, curatorial, and other scholarly work, will explore the conservation process and its findings in depth.

“The Jeppson Idea Lab provides our visitors with insight into the incredible work of curators, scholars, and conservators, without whom the great stories of art history would be lost to time,” said WAM Director Matthias Waschek. “With this remarkable presentation of companion portraits by William Hogarth, our visitors can experience the original palette and brushstrokes of one of the great masters of the 18th century and gain a deeper appreciation of the work through learning about the nuances of its conservation. As the first museum to bring Hogarth’s works to the United States, we look forward to building on WAM’s pioneering legacy by granting visitors unparalleled access to these gems of the Museum’s British paintings collection.”

Born in London, England, William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) led a diverse career, working in a range of media to explore issues of modern morality. Initially trained as an ornamental engraver, Hogarth is best known for his satirical caricatures and for popularizing the art market by creating affordable prints for the middle and lower classes. Hogarth was also a skilled portrait painter, infusing the Rococo aesthetic of the time into the depiction of his sitters, as evident in William James (1744) and Elizabeth James (1744).

Notably, Hogarth painted his acclaimed series Marriage á-la-mode (1743-1745), which cautions against marrying for money and status, during the same period that he painted WAM’s pendant portraits of William James and his young wife.

To shed light on the conservation process, the Jeppson Idea Lab will present video interviews with WAM Conservators Rita Albertson and Philip Klausmeyer. The interviews, along with iPad interactives, demonstrate the cross section analysis used to examine the layered structure of the portraits, which revealed both the paint layers and surface coatings, and show their technical analysis of Hogarth’s materials and methods using high-resolution microscopic imaging. The removal of the dirt and grime embedded in the portraits unveiled the sitters’ personalities and the vibrant colors of Hogarth’s palette, allowing viewers to experience the works as the artist intended. In their reclaimed state, the vibrant treatment of the James’s come through—their fashionable clothing is even richer and more aptly reflects their economic status; William also appears notably older than his wife, and the bemused expression on his face becomes more distinct. In addition, the gilded frames also underwent extensive treatment by WAM Conservator Birgit Straehle in another important aspect of this collaborative project.

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