„Convoi la Plevna” by Ștefan Luchian

Modern History
1890 - 1900
linen canvas, oil-based colors
oil on canvas
90,5 cm x 71 cm

    „Convoi la Plevna” by Ștefan Luchian

    Text&photo: Romeo Gheorghiță, Sorina Gheorghiță

    The subject of the painting Convoy in Pleven glances over a sequence from the Romanian War of Independence. The painting, executed undoubtedly in the painter’s early creation period, lays under the strong artistic influence of Nicolae Grigorescu in terms of subject, composition and chromatics. This painting might have been made in order to prepare another piece, of larger dimensions and bearing the same title, which was going to be displayed at a Parisian exhibition in 1892.

    Through his work, the painter Ștefan Luchian has opened new paths in the Romanian art, exerting a strong influence on the early decades of the 20th century painting. At the beginning of his creation, the artist situated himself on the realist line of plastic representation, by following in the footsteps of his predecessors for a while. He was therefore praised as one of the most brilliant followers of Nicolae Grigorescu and Ion Andreescu, the “forefathers” of Romanian painting. Through his works, Luchian depicts the expression and profoundly historical consciousness of the Romanian nation, partly due to his father, a military involved in the historical events of the time. This would explain his adherence, during the training years, to Grigorescu’s themes and manner. Thus, important events like Romania’s war for national independence (1877-1878) are marked in Luchian’s work through pieces like: O santinelă (A Sentry), Santinela de la 1877 (1877 Sentinel), Roșiorul, Curaj (Bravery). On canvas, the painter brings back to life the young soldiers’ image, gun in hand, ready to defend the country’s borders.

    The composition of the painting depicts a military convoy on its way to Pleven, made up of three carts with supplies, pulled by pairs of oxen. The carts are accompanied by armed Romanian infantry soldiers. The small military convoy advances through a lowland landscape swept by blizzard, at the height of winter, and is set against a cloudy sky, yet lit by the white of the snow.

    The painting is of medium size (90.5 x 71 cm) and it was created by the artist in oil-based colors. It is signed in a dark grey color on the bottom right side, in capital letters: “S. LUCHIAN”. The signature was made after the drying of the painting’s color coating and shows some abrasions, more prominent on the last letter (N).

    At a first glance-analysis, the painting had the appearance of a piece in oil colors made on linen canvas. The color was applied in a paste, fairly thick locally, with visible traces of brush strokes.

    The painting’s color priming, glue and chalk powder, was relatively evenly applied, following the tensioning of the canvas on the stand. The priming was visible in some opened craquelure of the layer of paint. The painting was varnished, and this varnish was unevenly applied, in several layers.

    Aspects in the process of conservation/ restoration

    The conservation state before restauration

    The work displayed many previous interventions: backing the stand, reducing the surface of the painting by cutting off the edges of the original painting, the existence of a relatively recent stand, repainted surfaces and corrections made in various stages, which hid different losses. The examination made before the restoration revealed the existence of some major degradations and losses, more difficult to assess because of the layer of varnish and the consistent deposits that covered the surface. 

    The stand of the painting comes from a subsequent intervention; it is correctly made and has mobile joints, appropriately cut in an angle of 90°. It does not show major degradations, being estimated as 35 – 50 years old. Visible on the back and on the sides of the work of art, the linen canvas, with medium thick thread and a dense weave (17 threads x 18 threads/cm2) comes from the same intervention as the wooden stand. 

    The insufficient tensioning of the canvas on the stand facilitated the vertical imprinting on the central rail of the wooden stand, and some deformations at the corners of the painting.  

    The stand of the painting had deformations caused by hitting and scratching, from the back to the front, in the upper part and in the lower right part, and from the front to the back, in the central area. Near the signature, the canvas backing was deformed and had a scratch.

    The layer of paint has a wide craquelure, being open in many parts, and, around the central hit, this craquelure is disposed in concentric circles. Locally, the craquelure had the tendency to peel off, especially where it was caused or favored by incisions or blows.  

    The entire area of the lacunae was covered with a thick putty, which had a different structure from the general aspect of the painting. This intervention overlaid the craquelure of the painting in that area. The putty was repainted in oil-based colors, darker than the tones of grey in the original painting. Moreover, on the edges of the painting, various putties were applied with a knife, in a thick layer, over other lacunae of the layer of paint. The above mentioned older losses of the layer of paint, as well as some more recent smaller ones, located within the perimeter of the painting or on the painted surface, have been covered with retouches, applied on the varnish. These correcting interventions were not limited to the existing lacunae and have modified their chromatics. The varnish applied in several layers displayed local clumping. The resin film was severely damaged from the photo-chemical point of view, modifying the chromatic connections between various parts of the image in the painting.    

    All the surface of the painting was covered with dust and insect excrements. Moreover, there were various substances, which got darker in time and which were more obvious in the lower half of the painting.

    The methodology of the conservation-restoration operations

    The conservation-restoration interventions complied with the principles that indicate the directions of the methodology. Thus, these interventions on the work of art must be: recognizable, without leading to a historical or aesthetic fake; reversible, so that they could be easily removed; compatible – using materials that are compatible with the original ones, so that they would not affect them in any way. The operations carried out in compliance with these principles must confer the work of art a potential unity, at the same time preserving its authenticity. With a view to establishing the restoration strategy, the bipolarity of the work of art, through which this defines the authenticity of the author’s historical and artistic message, without distorting or diminishing it, was taken into consideration.   

    The proposed conservation-restoration treatment:

    - the local consolidation of the layer of paint with fish glue, in order to prevent it from peeling off.

    - the removal of the canvas from the stand and the correction of the deformations of the stand by applying local presses. 

    - the correct tensioning of the canvas on the stand (the replacement of the stand because it was not mechanically resistant).

    - the removal of the degraded varnish, insect excrements and chromatically modified retouches. Following the small-scale tests, it was noticed that most repainting is relatively recent, being applied on the varnish, much later than the creation of the painting. Therefore, it was possible to remove it without affecting the original layer of color.   

    - the levelling of the lacunae in the layer of paint and the imitation of the aspect of the surface by using a composite putty, made of fish glue and chalk powder.   

    - the isolation of the putties, with a view to their chromatic reintegration. 

    - the chromatic reintegration of the puttied lacunae and the erosions of the color film by retouch, in reversible colors based on water and varnish.  

    - the final varnishing with dammar resin varnish, applied by spraying.  

    - the protection of the back of the painting, by applying a neutral, rigid cardboard.

    - the correct framing and the perimeter protection of the painting, in order to avoid abrasions at the contact with the frame. 

    During the first intervention stage, it was necessary to locally consolidate the peeling off tendencies of the layer of paint with solutions based on glue in various concentrations. 

    The varnish was removed in two stages. This removal probably corresponded to the two layers of varnish, which differed through their degree of solubilization.

    After removing the degraded varnish film, which strongly changed the perception of the image in the painting, the presence of two layers of repainting became obvious: 

    1) Recent repainting (retouch), applied on the varnish, with a relatively more difficult solubilization than the resin film;

    2) Older repainting, covered by the later retouches and repainting, which were difficult to remove because of a high concentration of oil in the color film.

    Both layers of repainting, applied at different stages, were covering the old craquelure of the original layer of paint. The last interventions were probably attempting to correct the chromatic and value differences that appeared in time between the repainting and the original chromatics. The repainted surfaces, out of which some were bringing changes to the composition forms, were placed as follows: within the perimeter, over older putties or directly on the color; on the sky surface, in the area of some small lacunae, and over the light-colored cloud on the right (covering abrasions and craquelure); on the light area of the haystacks and near the shades on their left side (covering small lacunae and craquelure); there were big-size repainted surfaces in the area of the two ox-wagons in the background of the convoy, on the right side of the composition, the colors being applied over old putties, which were covering big lacunae. The repainting emphasized the existence of two stages of interventions on the painting. The old putties in the area of this big lacuna at the ox-wagon in the background were coming from the two different interventions. The operations meant to remove the repainting and the inappropriate putties confirmed the hypothesis of a semi-transposition, by uncovering some thin films of brown paper. This paper comes from the cardboard of the original stand, preserved on the upper edges and in the lacunae on the right side of the artwork. After removing the repainting and old putties, it was noticed that, at a certain moment, a restoration had been made. This consisted in a radical operation of semi-transposing the painting on canvas. During this stage, it was emphasized that Convoy in Pleven was made on a cardboard backing. During this intervention of structural re-transposition, the surface of the painting was pressed, producing deformations on the edges of the lacunae, and small fragments from the original color were placed on the area of the big lacuna. Moreover, it was discovered that many tiny pieces of the original layer of paint had been pressed and inappropriately glued to the entire surface of the painting.

    In conclusion, similar to other interventions, the operations of cleaning the painting were an important part of the entire range of operations carried out with a view to recovering the authenticity of the image in the artwork. It must be highlighted that the aesthetic recovery of the image, in this case of a painting, is conditioned by the accuracy of the operations meant to consolidate the painting matter of the entire work. These interventions were very delicate and, at the same time, they were the only irreversible ones. On the whole, the methodological process and the preliminary analysis have mainly focused on the conservation and recovery of the genuine historical and aesthetic values of Convoy in Pleven. The painting was made by Ştefan Luchian, during the first part of his artistic career, at the end of the 19th century.

    Ștefan Luchian

    Also known as the pictorial poet of flowers, the Romanian painter Ștefan Luchian was born in Botoșani on the 1st of February, as the son of major Dumitru Luchian and Elena Chiriacescu. When Ștefan was five years old, the Luchian family moved to Bucharest, to a house on Popa Soare Street.

    Ștefan Luchian’s talent had been noticed ever since his childhood when, after being offered a set of watercolors by an aunt, he decided to start a “career” by painting a mural straight onto one of the guest room’s walls, to his mother’s dissatisfaction.

    After successfully deflecting his parents’ assertiveness for him to choose a military career, Ștefan Luchian enrolled in the painting class of The National School of Fine Arts (Belle-Arte Academy) in Bucharest, in the autumn of 1885, with Gheorghe Tattarescu, Theodor Aman and Constantin I. Stănculescu as teachers. In 1889, upon graduation, he was awarded the bronze medal for his works, entitled Cap de expresie (Head Expression) and Studiu după natură (Nature Study).

    Following graduation, Luchian continued his studies in Munich, enlisting in the courses of the Academy of Fine Arts for two semesters, under the guidance of professors Johann Caspar Herterich and Ludwig Herterich. Among other studies, he produced copies after Correggio and Rembrandt in Munich. In 1890, once returned to his country, he participated in the first exhibition of the Cercul Artistic art society.

    In 1891 he left for the Julian Academy in Paris, in order to study in the Studio of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, where he was confronted both by the academism that he could not agree with and by the conservative painting principles acquired by his teachers from artists such as Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David and passed on to him. For this reason, he would declare that “he learned more from Grigorescu and from the museums and exhibitions abroad”. Nevertheless, Luchian has established his own elements of expression in this environment filled with impressionist effervescence.

    In early 1892, Ștefan Luchian had to return to Bucharest, on account of his mother’s death. The following year he moved to a house in which he set up a workshop, dedicating himself entirely to painting, involving himself in Bucharest’s artistic life, participating in the most important individual and collective exhibitions, and becoming one of the most important painters of the time. He remains a painter with post-impressionist accents, as the first Romanian colorist to have enriched modern painting. In 1900 he took part in the Universal Exhibition in Paris with two pastels.

    In 1901 the first signs of illness started to appear, a multiple sclerosis that would condemn him to invalidity until the end of his life. The illness will lead him to a state of accentuated decrepitude, to the point of compelling him to paint with the brush tied to his hand.

    After 1909 Ștefan Luchian did not get up from his armchair, but the splendors of the Romanian landscape lived on his mind, this being the period during which he created some of his most beautiful masterpieces.

    Ștefan Luchian’s work distinguishes itself by finesse, simplicity, brilliant and delicate coloring, with a uniquely masterful technique, and with a compelling authenticity. Among his most notable works we will mention the landscapes – Bătălie cu flori la șosea (Flower Fight on the Road), Corturi de pe Bărăgan (Tents on Bărăgan), Ultima cursă de toamnă (The Last Autumn Race), Mahalaua dracului (Devil’s Slum), Ghereta din Filantropia (The booth in Filantropia) – the ones depicting ordinary people in mundane aspects – Safta florăreasa (Safta the Flower Girl), La împărțitul porumbului (The dividing of the Corn), Lăutul (Hair Washing), La fântână (At the Well) – or the portaits – Moș Nicolae Cobzarul (Old Nicolae The Fiddler), Lorica, Fetița cu portocala (Girl with an Orange) – and of course, the flowers, genuine “chromatic poems” that he created during the final years of his life – Anemone (Anemones), Garoafe (Carnations), Părăluțe și dumitrițe (Daisies and Chrysanthemums), Bujori și maci (Peonies and Poppies) etc.

    On the night between the 27th and the 28th of June 1916, after a long sufferance, Ștefan Luchian died in his house on Primăverii Street. He was only 48 years old. (Roxana GÂSCĂ)