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Peeling back the years

By Christie Ann Rice / July 23, 1985

I was probably 9 or 10 that rainy day when I ventured a peek into my father's studio and decided to have a look around. Father was a commercial artist with a studio in the city, but here at home was his personal bailiwick, where, from time to time, he would paint and where he kept his private collections. I pulled out first one canvas, then another, from the storage racks. Many of the paintings had been done by Father's friends. I remember noticing a scrunched-up scroll of canvas that had been shoved behind a rack. My curiosity was piqued. I stretched an arm into the slots and managed, after considerable tugging and maneuvering, to extricate the sizable roll.

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With dusty and scratched arms and hands, I carefully unrolled a canvas as tall as I was and found myself looking into the clear, calm eyes of an elegant young boy. At the risk of triteness I must say that it was love at first sight.

The boy's features were beautifully modeled and so delicately painted that the brushstrokes were hardly visible. His muted red velvet jacket, closed with gleaming brass buttons, was topped with a crisply white lacy collar. His pleated trousers were a soft gray color. In one hand he held a large circular object, like a shield. I guessed that it was a kite, because he had a roll of string in the other hand. In the distant background was a distinctively shaped mountain peak.

The edges of the canvas were rough, and there were some creases where the paint had broken away, but the quality and refinement of the painting made a distinct impression on me. Visually I drank in the exquisite detail of the face and form for long minutes. Then, carefully, if a bit clumsily, I rolled the canvas, tugged open a long drawer in the mammoth bureau Father used for storage, and placed the painting there for safekeeping. At that time I noticed a date and name written with red paint in script o n the reverse of the canvas. These details were filed away in my memory. I never mentioned seeing the painting to my father, because . . . well, I was not supposed to be in that room!

Some years later, after I was married, I asked Dad if my husband and I might have a few paintings to help decorate the antique farmhouse we had just bought. He let us choose. I remembered the boy and opened the bureau, and there was the canvas just where I had placed it long before.

``Oh! Could I have this one?'' I asked hopefully.

Father nodded and said he would fix it up for us. He glued the fragile canvas to Masonite, overpainted the chipped areas, which were mostly around the edges, varnished it, and then framed it with a gilt molding. To our eyes it looked very nice.

The portrait was always, and still is, hung in our dining room and is especially luminous in candlelight. Because of its obvious quality and its size, three feet by four feet, it is often admired.

After our children were raised and married and I had time for such things, I began to be concerned about the condition of the painting. Over the years the background, which was muddy when I first saw it, had become quite dark, though the face and figure remained clear. At last, I put into action that feeling I had had since I first saw it that this painting should be cherished and preserved.

I made inquiries and in time found a marvelous conservation laboratory. It took months of scrupulous and painstaking work, using the latest techniques, to bring the portrait to original condition.