Conserving a work of art involves careful detail work

Jennifer O’Brien’s downtown apartment in Little Rock is filled with art. There are paintings, pen-and-ink works, and collages, many by Arkansas artists like Donald Roller Wilson and Byron Werner.

A life-size oil painting of a young boy hangs at the end of a hallway. The child is William O’Brien Jr., a distant relative of Jennifer. He is seated in a green semi-circular chair and looks directly at the viewer, as if we have just interrupted his reading of the open book beside him. There is no date on the work, which was painted by Louis Betts, but may date to around 1900.

The painting inspired O’Brien, a Chicago-area native, to learn more about his family’s roots. There is also a connection to Little Rock and now, after a meticulous restoration, little William is very different from what it was just a few months ago.

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It’s December 27 and O’Brien’s Christmas tree stands in the living room of his bright and airy apartment. Next to this space is her studio, where she creates vibrant digital collages.

In 2009, O’Brien was working in health care administration when she moved to Little Rock to become the general manager of an orthopedic surgery practice. She hadn’t planned to stay long – two or three years, tops – but she fell in love with Dr. Robert Lehmberg, a palliative care and hospice doctor. They married in 2012 and O’Brien moved to Little Rock with him, although they kept his condo in Chicago.

In 2015, Lehmberg was diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer and died in 2017. O’Brien related this time through notes, collages and superimposed images in her award-winning 2020 book “The Hospice Doctor’s Widow: A Journal”, which was published by Little Et Alia Press based on the rock.

After Lehmberg’s death, O’Brien decided to stay here and sold his place in Chicago. Much of the art on its walls was part of Lehmberg’s collection, she says, and some are pieces they purchased together. The portrait of young William, however, has been in the O’Brien family for generations.

She knew the painting was done by Betts, an accomplished portrait painter, but didn’t know Betts was from Arkansas. It was during a conversation with Brian J. Lang, Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Crafts for the Windgate Foundation at the Art Museum of Arkansas, that she learned that Betts was originally from Little Rock.

“I told him I was bringing it from Chicago and he said, ‘You know, Louis Betts was from Little Rock.’ He told me there were three paintings [by Betts] in the museum’s collection. It was really exciting to know that the painting was coming to Betts.”

Betts was born on October 5, 1873 in Little Rock. His father, Edwin, a landscape designer, was Louis’ first teacher, according to the Arkansas Encyclopedia. The “Professor Armellini” portrait, one of three in the National Gallery’s collection, was said to have been painted when Betts was just 16 in exchange for violin lessons.

The family did not stay long in Little Rock. Betts’ mother died shortly after he was born and his father married one of his sisters. According to the encyclopedia, Betts’ three siblings, who also became artists, were born in St. Louis, Chicago and New York.

Betts studied with William Merritt Chase, the influential American impressionist and teacher, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Chase even painted an expressive portrait of the handsome young Betts), and also studied in Europe. He became a highly regarded artist whose portraits have been placed in the United States Capitol and are part of the collections of the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and others.

He was related to the O’Brien family in Chicago, and that’s where the portrayal of William Jr. comes in.

William O’Brien Jr. is portrayed in this oil painting by Little Rock native Louis Betts. The work is undated, but it is believed to have been made around 1900. This photo was taken in December, before the painting was cleaned by Norton Arts. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Martin O’Brien was Jennifer’s maternal great-great-grandfather. (There are O’Briens on both sides of her family tree. “I’m very, very Irish,” she says.) Martin was born around 1830 in County Galway, Ireland. He immigrated to the United States and, in 1855, opened a picture frame store in Chicago, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s online virtual archives.

“He was a bit unusual at the time because instead of ornate frames, he made relatively simple frames,” says O’Brien. “He felt the frame should complement the art, not compete with it.”

After framing artwork bought by Chicagoans in New York and Europe, he saw a business opportunity and opened his own gallery, a first in Chicago, according to the Smithsonian. It has operated under a number of names over the years, including O’Brien’s Art Emporium, O’Brien Art Galleries, O’Brien Galleries, House of O’Brien and Mr. O’Brien & Sons, and has remained at Chicago until 1941. It was closed during World War II and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in the 1950s. (Fun fact: William Jr., grandson of Martin, took over the gallery from William Sr . and moved her to Scottsdale.)

The gallery was mentioned in the book that accompanied the 2018 exhibition “John Singer Sargent & Chicago’s Gilded Age” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Several artists worked in residence at the Chicago gallery, O’Brien says, and Betts was the best known and most accomplished.

“There are Betts paintings all over Chicago,” she says. “I think my great-great-grandfather and Betts did a really good job making these portraits, artistically documenting the history of the town, and making money in the process.”

Betts, who was living in Bronxville, NY, when he died on August 13, 1961, made four portraits of members of the O’Brien family. Besides William Jr., he painted Martin, Florence Honoria O’Brien, and William Sr. Jennifer inherited William Jr.’s painting from his grandmother, Mary Jane “Babe” Rich.

“I guess he’s 4 or 5, maybe 6,” she said, standing in front of the painting. “He has blonde hair and blue eyes, which is definitely a different branch of the family. That’s what my grandmother looked like. … I see the people I come from, the generations I come from. I lost many of my family members at a relatively young age, and I see my loved ones still with me – those I lost recently and those before me.”

When Lang came to see the painting, he suggested O’Brien have it cleaned. She enlisted Norton Arts, the Little Rock-based art restorers, to restore the painting to its original luster.

Photo Liz Norton, owner of Norton Fine Arts in Little Rock, speaks as Ravie Derge carefully removes decades-old varnish from a Louis Betts painting, owned by Jennifer O’Brien, in the business in April. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
On a beautiful morning in early April, the painting is on a table at Norton Arts in the historic Mills-Davis house, a few blocks from its place on O’Brien’s wall. Ravie Derge, conservator at Norton Arts, uses a cotton swab to carefully remove the decades-old varnish, originally applied to protect the paint, from the surface of the work.

“It was a really well maintained room,” she says.

The difference between the areas she worked on and those where the polish remains is dramatic. Young William’s cheeks are rosy and shiny now that they’ve been freed from the amber-tinted coating. The paint under the varnish looks as it might have looked the day Betts dipped his brush in it and placed it on the canvas.

“The varnish was actually applied very well and very thick, so the paint underneath was kept in pristine condition,” says Derge. “If they hadn’t properly varnished this painting, over time you would see smudges and discoloration of the paint.”

Had it not been preserved, the varnish would eventually have faded, leaving the pigments underneath unprotected.

This is not a job for the impatient.

“It’s a slow process,” says company owner Liz Norton. “It’s a constant observation of what you’re doing. If you see something wrong, you have to stop and reevaluate. You can’t go there without thinking.”

There was a small chip on William’s forehead – a gap, in the parlance of the restorer – which Derge says she will repair by carefully matching the paint and using as little as possible.

Norton Arts’ work is also done with future restorers in mind.

“Everything we do should be reversible. It’s an American Institute for Conservation standard,” Norton says. “That’s command number one.”

Derge will eventually re-varnish the painting and it will be ready to go back on the wall.

Well, after a trip to the Cantrell gallery for a new frame. His old “really shitty” frame certainly didn’t come from his great-great-grandfather’s frame shop, O’Brien says.

Photo The colors of William O’Brien Jr.’s face become more vibrant as Norton Fine Arts’ Ravie Derge removes varnish from the canvas. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
Conserving a work of art – having it cleaned and repaired – brings it back to life and allows the owner to see it as it was when it was new.

“You lived with [a painting] for so long that you don’t understand what you don’t see,” says Norton. “Once that polish is removed, a lot of detail usually comes out that you didn’t even know was there.

Jennifer Carman – owner of J. Carman Inc., a fine art consulting and appraisal service in Little Rock – says she “never had a [client] do a conservation treatment and say at the end that it was not worth it.”

“As soon as they see it, they see it again,” adds Carman. “They fall in love with this object in a whole new way because they didn’t know what was under that dark veneer.”

O’Brien got his painting back, all cleaned up and cropped, at the end of May. It hangs in its familiar spot at the end of its hallway.

“It’s really like having a new painting,” she says. “It’s more of a revival, though. I had taken it a bit for granted. I always thought it was beautiful, but re-acquainting myself with the story and then having the chance to have it restored, it’s reconnecting with my family history.

“There’s a kind of completeness to what I do now, both artistically and with end-of-life and legacy work. Martin O’Brien and Louis Betts, that was a legacy and that’s much of it.”

About Bernard Kraft

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