Raiders of the Lost Art

The effort to save one of Missoula’s historic paintings

May 18, 2000

In the art world, are conservation and restoration the same thing? Are age glitches ever desirable in a work of art? Does meaning accrue as the pigment fades? Why did some people object when Michelangelo’s “Creation” and other paintings in the Sistine Chapel were restored to their original bright colors? Why is it that some new furniture for sale in trendy catalogs is intentionally “antiqued” or “distressed”? Would anyone ever purposefully pock mark a beloved photograph? A painting?

You can ask these possibly odd questions if you happen to go to the free discussion about preservation and conservation featuring Hays Shoop, from the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center in Denver, at the Art Museum of Missoula from noon to 1 p.m. on Friday, May 19.

Or, if you miss that event—which is titled “Preserving Your Collections: A Conversation About Conservation”—you still have one more day to catch the exhibit at the Museum called “Preserving Context: E.S. Paxson at the Turn of the Century.” This exhibit is centered around the planned restoration of Paxson’s 1891 painting Head of Horseshoe Lake.

The exhibit’s text walks you through the history of the painting, which was donated to the museum by Jennie Lyng Kitt, a friend of Paxson’s daughter, Lelia Hale. It tells you something about E.S. Paxson, who painted pivotal moments in the encroachment of white settlers into Indian lands—his most famous works depict Custer’s last stand and the surrender of Chief Joseph.

Paxson was a contemporary and friend of Charles Russell, but he never achieved the same fame and monetary reward, possibly because he did not have the aggressive management that Russell had through his wife, Nancy. Now many of Paxson’s works live outside Montana, although his murals can be seen in the Montana Capitol and the Missoula County Courthouse.

When the present exhibit closes, Head of Horseshoe Lake will be crated and shipped to the Rocky Mountain Conservation Center, and there, in climate-controlled laboratories free of ultraviolet light, it will undergo what is called “interventive conservation” (a term that sounds somewhat medical). This means it will be cleaned, transferred to a new support, relieved of old restoratives, such as varnishes now known to be harmful, and “inpainted”—that is, new paint will be added to areas where it was lost. The goal is conservation, i.e. “to preserve as much as possible what remains of the painting, slow the process of deterioration, and extend the object’s life” (per the exhibit notes), and it is also restoration, that is—“the conservation work will bring the original image closer to us than before.”

It’s a multi-directional project, therefore—the painting will become closer to its original self, and it will be equipped to last “well into the 21st century.” The “context” part of the exhibit’s title involves the present—the museum’s mission being the preservation of “artwork that provides an historical context for what the current generation is creating.”

What the current generation of Montana artists will glean from Head of Horseshoe Lake is atypical. Even though the painting is thought to be set somewhere in the Great Falls/Highwood area, it is pastoral and green. There is a bird dog and a gentleman with a shotgun, after ducks. The dark quality of many of Paxson’s paintings has been attributed to the influence of the smeltered skies of his first adopted city of Butte. And his most famous painting, Custer’s Last Stand, is a tangle of human bodies and horses. Head of Horseshoe Lake, in contrast, shows an early Montana free of strife, conflict and dust.

“Preserving Your Collections: A Conversation About Conservation” takes place at the Art Museum of Missoula from noon to 1 p.m. on Friday, May 19. The restoration exhibit “Preserving Context: E.S. Paxson at the Turn of the Century” is on view in the Second Floor Gallery through Saturday, May 20.

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