Dazzling 1928 painting by Harvey Dunn is repaired and returned to original splendor

August 29, 2018

When the Whaling Fleet Cleared for the Caribes, 1928 (before conservation, with damaged areas circled). Harvey Dunn (1884–1952). Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, 2017. © Company or Estate of the artist.

When the Whaling Fleet Cleared for the Caribes, 1928 (after conservation). Harvey Dunn (1884–1952). Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, 2017. © Company or Estate of the artist.

I audibly gasped as I circled the desk and caught sight of the painting. It was lushly painted with an evocative composition and energetic brushwork. The influence of Howard Pyle was palpable. I kneeled down for a better look—careful not to bump the pictures behind me—and groaned. The painting had obvious damage: a tear in the sky below the waiving handkerchief, a puncture near the railing in the lower right corner, and scratches across the surface. A clear signature, reading “Harvey Dunn 1928,” kept me interested.

Dunn was an important illustrator and a Pyle student, and the date was well within the core of the Museum’s illustration collection. I knew we had works by Dunn, but nothing as Pyle-like as this painting. I took a lot of pictures of When the Whaling Fleet Cleared for the Caribes—overall shots, details of the damaged areas, photographs of the back, and a picture of the label affixed to the back of the canvas.

The painting had been leaning at the front of a stack of framed pictures in an office in the Hotel du Pont. The room was packed with dozens of paintings from the hotel’s collection that were not currently on view. Drifts of paintings lined every wall of the nondescript office. These were not the familiar Wyeths from the Brandywine Room or the Green Room, and my guide had warned me that some were in less-than-perfect condition.

The art-filled office was the last stop in a whirlwind viewing in February, 2017. This was my first look at art from the hotel’s collection generously offered to the Delaware Art Museum, Hagley, Brandywine River Museum, and others by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. We knew it was important to keep key works in the region where they had been created, collected, and displayed. Our curators were honored to be given the opportunity to select pieces for the Museum collection.

Many of the most familiar paintings had been at the hotel since the 1940s when the Hotel Du Pont purchased original art to decorate the hotel and support the local arts community. The Dunn painting was a bit unusual. The illustration was originally commissioned for the advertising department of the DuPont Company—probably as an advertisement for Duco paint. It would have been used as raw material to be photographed and reproduced for an advertising campaign. This may help to explain its rough condition.

It was a terrific painting with an intriguing backstory, but its condition made me nervous. Would a conservator be able to repair it? I was hopeful. Given the donor’s short timeline, we couldn’t bring in a conservator before accepting the gift. Having spent hours examining paintings with conservator Mark Bockrath, I learned that it’s often easy to repair a torn canvas—especially if no pieces have been lost and no one has attempted to repair it in the past. Undoing old repairs can be tricky.

After reviewing photographs with our curatorial team and an assessment onsite at the hotel by registrar, Allison Nicks, we made the leap and added thirteen works to the collection in March. Within days, Mark Bockrath assessed the six oil paintings in the gift. We were relieved to hear that the Dunn canvas could be repaired and that it would look even better when its grimy, yellowed varnish was removed. Conservators for works on paper and objects were brought in to review other items from the hotel and the proposed treatment costs began to add up.

Meanwhile, a press release about the gift was driving interest in the work. People wanted to see the pieces; however, the conservation costs were more than double our annual conservation budget. With this in mind, the Museum’s grants manager, Ashley Harper, suggested we apply for a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. We were thrilled to receive funding last fall. Treatment began immediately, and, as I write this, we are awaiting the final delivery of conserved paintings—just in time to begin installing the first exhibition of the gifts.

Wonders of Wilmington: Gifts from the Hotel du Pont Collection opens Saturday, September 8 and will be on view through January 13, 2019. I hope you’ll come and see how dazzling Harvey Dunn’s When the Whaling Fleet Cleared for the Caribes looks now!

Heather Campbell Coyle

Curator of American Art

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