Esthetic Considerations in Interpreting, Conserving, and Replicating Historic Finishes at Monticello
by Susan L. Buck
In his 1978 essay “Visual Criteria for Building Restoration: Determining Appropriate Repair/Cosmetic Treatments”, James Marston Fitch advised that “In determining what preservation philosophy should be pursued, esthetic, maintenance, and environmental factors have to be considered. More specifically, the esthetic ambitions of the original designers/owners of the artifact must be taken into account.”1 This is a challenging task when the original designer and owner is the fascinating and sometimes elusive Thomas Jefferson.(Figure 1)
The painted finishes at Monticello were researched during the 1936 restoration overseen by Milton L. Grigg, a preservation architect, and the architect and scholar Fiske Kimball. Their correspondence suggests there was concern about how the colors they believed dated to Jefferson would be accepted by the public, although Grigg was pleased that the blue he found in the dining room matched the Wedgewood plaques in the mantel.2 Ultimately the restoration decisions they made seem to have been partly based on the physical evidence, and partly on what they felt was appropriate for a building as important as Monticello. We know now that, one way or another, our decisions about restoring finishes reflect our time, but we are also more willing now to find the messy reality than earlier.
Matching and replicating period colors continues to be one of the most difficult components of building interpretation and preservation. We all have emotional responses to color, and often we cannot help doubting color combinations and faux finishes that seem lacking in taste, refinement, or beauty. Fitch was acutely aware of this problem, as he observed in the same essay: “What may be one generation’s concept of a handsome finish for a building may be considered quite garish, or not even considered at all, in a later time period. And if the original scheme is to be achieved, how can the color values be best determined?”
At Monticello a more scientific approach to analyzing and matching early paint colors began in the late 1970s when paint analyst Frank S. Welsh investigated the interior and the exterior finishes. I have worked on many paint analysis projects with Architectural Conservator Robert L. Self and Director of Restoration William L. Beiswanger since the early 1990s, and we continue to be astonished at how much more there is to learn about Jefferson’s decorating choices. Methods for analyzing historic coatings and matching colors have advanced considerably in sophistication and repeatability, even in two decades, allowing us to more clearly relate the paint evidence at Monticello to Jefferson’s correspondence and to period craft practices and materials.
Three projects help to reveal Jefferson’s intentions: analysis of the surviving green paints on the louvered “porticles;” the search for early paints and wallpaper in the Dining Room; and the investigation of the dark gray walls in the South Square Room. These projects provide intriguing insights into Jefferson’s decisions about color, surface texture, and overall visual impact, as well as a better sense of how he may have come to make these choices.
When the decision was made to replicate the louvered enclosures in 1998, one key piece of evidence was an original louver fragment discovered in the north attic in 1996. Cross-section microscopy showed that the original paint consisted of an oil-bound off-white primer and an oil-bound finish coat made primarily with the brilliant green copper-based pigment verdigris. But, verdigris paint is unstable, known to discolor to almost black when exposed to weathering. This posed a problem -- had Jefferson chosen this particular green for his shutters and porticles because he knew it would soon become almost black, or did he choose a brilliant green for other reasons? How should this green color be replicated? Cross-section microscopy paint analysis, hand-ground paint replications, and accelerated aging tests were used to determine the original grass-green color. When this color was applied to the shutters and porticles, it visually tied the building to the surrounding landscape.
The paints on the walls in the Dining Room posed a different challenge, especially because the current blue paint, based on the 1930s research, is much-beloved by Monticello visitors. My work in the mid-1990s had revealed a brilliant chrome yellow-based paint on top of the plaster and below, a layer of rag-based gray-painted wallpaper. This wallpaper was of keen interest to Monticello curators since there had long been a question about whether Jefferson installed wallpaper in certain first floor rooms.
The presence of chrome yellow in the first paint on the Dining Room walls means this layer could be as early as 1812, the date of the first known reference for chrome yellow in this country. The remnants of wallpaper above the window pediment, on top of the chrome yellow, could date to Jefferson. Fitch described Mount Vernon and Monticello as “especially worthy of our study as they were so elegantly designed and furnished by their owners, so meticulously documented by them, and subsequently so carefully preserved by their curators.”3 The survival of the chrome yellow paint and the wallpaper fragments is proof of this careful preservation approach. But the importance of this particular room means that any repainting decision could provoke concern not only from some of the staff, but from Jefferson scholars and the public. It took more than 10 years of research, paint analysis, overpaint removal, and paint replication tests before it was decided to repaint the room. The brilliant yellow paint was applied in early 2010, and while some may perceive this newly repainted room as garish, it now gives us a far better sense of Jefferson and his particular esthetics.
The most recent project at Monticello is the South Square Room. In 1997, Welsh identified the walls as black plaster.4 In 1981 Andrew Johnson, then Monticello’s architectural conservator, exposed an area of the black plaster using a solvent-based stripper and scrubbing with steel wool, revealing a smooth black surface. But this is somewhat deceiving as the surface was darkened from penetration of the stripper and polished by the steel wool. My on-site investigations and analysis showed that the walls were originally dark gray created with a traditional fresco painting technique, followed by chalky light blue distemper.
The contrast of the matte dark gray walls with the off-white woodwork must have been a dramatic backdrop for the gilded frames and prints known to have been in this room. But the room was recently repainted to match the second-generation blue distemper paint as it is interpreted to the end of Jefferson’s life, when his daughter Martha used the room as the central space from which to manage the household.
All the exposures in the Dining Room and South Square Room were left in place for reference and future analysis as this is certainly not the end of paint research in the house. Analytical methods will continue to improve and researchers will ask different questions. Our generation is interested in the potential contrasts, inconsistencies, even awkwardnesses, of a house like Monticello, and what they indicate about the owners, particularly someone with the endlessly complex esthetics of Thomas Jefferson. Now, as a house museum, Monticello continues to offer up still fresh ideas of domestic comforts and delight to streams of visitors each year.
About the Author
Susan L. Buck is a Conservator and Paint Analyst and Lecturer in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Graduate Program in Art Conservation. She may be contacted by email at email@example.com.
1. James Marston Fitch, “Visual Criteria for Historic Building Restoration: Determining Appropriate Repair/Cosmetic Treatments,” in Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment, ed. Martica Sawin (New York, NY: Norton, 2006), 213.
2. Milton L. Grigg to Dr. Fiske Kimball, May 28, 1936. Correspondence copy provided by William L. Beiswanger, Robert H. Smith Director of Restoration, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
3. James Marston Fitch, “Mt. Vernon and Monticello: Exemplars of the Slave Powered Plantation,” in Selected Writings on Architecture, Preservation, and the Built Environment, ed. Martica Sawin (New York, NY: Norton, 2006), 106.
4. Frank S. Welsh, “Monticello: Paint & Color Analysis of the interior & exterior to determine the Original Architectural Finishes,” unpublished report for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, January, 1977. See also Frank S. Welsh, “The Early American Palette: Colonial Paint Colors Revealed,” in Paint in America: The Colors of Historic Buildings, ed. Roger W. Moss (Washington, DC: Preservation Press, 1994), 72.