Treasures of Biloxi

Artworks from Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi were among the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Expert art conservators have been tasked with restoring them to their original beauty.

By Jo Ann Caplin | January 2, 2008
The portrait of Winnie Davis before being treated at Winterthur.

The portrait of Winnie Davis before being treated at Winterthur.

Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation

Expert art conservators were among the first to arrive on the scene in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, had been devastated, and its collection of American art, artifacts, and books was in ruins.

When Hurricane Katrina struck Biloxi in 2005, it brought with it a 30-foot wall of water that finally retreated in wild vortexes of currents, smashing almost everything in its path and taking much back out to sea. The art and artifacts that Beauvoir housed had been swept away or were near ruin. Five of Beauvoir’s seven buildings were destroyed, and the remaining two, the library built in 1998 and the president’s mansion, were severely damaged. To the staff at Beauvoir it seemed as if the entire estate had been run through a giant electric blender.

In the ruins of the storm, the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC) found an opportunity for outreach and education, and its conservators rushed to participate in the recovery of artworks at Beauvoir. Administered by the University of Delaware with facilities at the Winterthur estate, WUDPAC offers one of three highly competitive fine art conservation graduate programs in the country. Here students study art history, chemistry, and archaeology and are trained to examine, analyze, stabilize, and treat art and artifacts. According to Joyce Hill Stoner, the head of the preservation studies doctoral program at WUDPAC, the destruction at Beauvoir provided real-life emergency training for students in the program. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and additional public and private support, the conservators went to work.

Three badly damaged historical portrait paintings from Beauvoir were sent to Winterthur for conservation. These were portraits of Jefferson Davis’s daughter Varina Anne Davis (better known as Winnie), Jefferson Davis’s own portrait, and a mysterious painting known as La Bella. All three paintings had been treated by the New Orleans Conservation Guild a year before Katrina, which helped protect them from even greater damage during the storm. But the storm was harsh, and the paintings were cracked and warped from salt water saturation and ripped as they were hit by furniture and other objects that were flung around by the wind and currents. Each painting presented different challenges. The canvas of Winnie’s portrait was ripped under her chin and had paint loss. The portrait of Jefferson Davis sustained extreme salt damage, and the canvas itself was warped. And La Bella, which sustained the least amount of damage with only a few spots of flaked paint and a small puncture, had a mysterious history and makeup to unravel.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes a clear distinction between conservation and restoration.

The conservators’ first challenge was to examine the paintings and find the information they would need in order to respect the paintings’ histories and cause no further damage; this follows one of the primary rules of conservancy during the last 50 years: to do no harm to the object being conserved. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes a clear distinction between conservation and restoration. It defines conservation as examination, scientific analysis, and research on art and artifacts to determine their original structure, materials, and the extent of loss, as well as structural and environmental treatment to retard future deterioration. Restoration is defined as the reconstruction of the aesthetic appearance of an object. In general conservators agree that any restoration of work on a painting should be removable in case of new interpretations or discoveries that tell more about how the work originally looked. The WUDPAC conservators had a daunting task: to determine the original form of these heavily damaged paintings, to restore them to that original form, and to protect them from future damage, all without altering the original artworks.


The Portrait of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, or simply Winnie, had suffered the most damage of the three paintings transported to Winterthur. In the portrait the young woman who was known as the daughter of the Confederacy is depicted as the Queen of Comus, a recurring position in the New Orleans Mardi Gras festival, and one that Winnie Davis took in 1892. In the portrait Winnie wears the Queen of Comus’s crown and holds her wand. The 1892 festival had a Japanese theme, and Winnie wears clothing that appears to be Asian in style.

Winnie’s portrait had hung in her bedroom at the Davis mansion. During the hurricane, furniture in the bedroom was flung around the room and against the painting. In addition, a beam pushed forward through the wall behind the painting, making a wide rip in the canvas through Winnie’s chin. The portrait also suffered extensive paint loss. As the waters rushed out of the building, Winnie was left water damaged and coated in salt and debris.

Although the damage from Katrina was a primary concern when Winnie arrived at Winterthur, there was also much to learn about changes that had been made to the painting over the course of its lifetime. According to Amber Kerr-Allison, a WUDPAC graduate student conservator working on the portrait, the New Orleans Conservation Guild had stabilized the structural condition through the use of a wax lining, attached to the back of the canvas to protect it from humidity, temperature, and the environmental conditions of the Gulf region. To some extent that wax lining did protect Winnie from the elements during Katrina.

But Winterthur conservators discovered a secret in the painting. When the painting was X-rayed by Kerr-Allison and Richard Wolbers, WUDPAC’s coordinator of science instruction, they found that its original background, which showed the image of a building, had been painted over. Kerr-Allison speculated that the building was Beauvoir, painted over with foliage. Maybe there was a reason Beauvoir disappeared from the portrait: in 1888 Winnie became engaged to the Yankee Alfred Wilkinson, a New York attorney, causing outrage among Southerners. Eventually she called off the engagement and in fact never married, but Kerr-Allison theorized that a possible reason for the overpainting was that someone who felt betrayed by Winnie’s romance with a Yankee “erased” Beauvoir from her portrait.

Kerr-Allison theorized that a possible reason for the overpainting was that someone who felt betrayed by Winnie’s romance with a Yankee “erased” Beauvoir from her portrait.

When the portrait of Winnie arrived at Winterthur, it was clear that the damage might have been far worse, and the New Orleans Conservation Guild’s wax lining had protected it from complete destruction. As it was, however, the damage was severe. Kerr-Allison first cleaned the painting to remove the debris and salt, which can cause the paint layers to deteriorate. She then removed the wax lining to flatten and stabilize the canvas at the point of the tear and removed the previous restoration materials. The painting was humidified to reduce distortions in the canvas. The large tear was patched from the back using fabric and adhesive, and a new lining was attached to the entire reverse of the canvas to stabilize it. Conservation is slow, however, and conservators will need several more months before restoration is complete. Following the basic principle of employing only removable substances, the conservators will apply a clear synthetic resin before restoring paint that was rubbed away in the storm, and they will then apply a removable synthetic varnish to protect the painting and restoration.

Jefferson Davis

George Bagby Matthews completed the portrait of Jefferson Davis in 1888, when Davis was 80 years old. The damage this painting sustained from the hurricane was not as great as that of Winnie. However, it arrived at Winterthur with a warped canvas and severe salt water damage that resulted in blanching (tiny whitish cracks on the surface of the varnish that potentially allow salt water to penetrate into the paint layer beneath).

As with Winnie, the New Orleans Conservation Guild had restored the portrait of Jefferson Davis in the year before Katrina, but the Davis portrait restoration was limited to removal of the original varnish and application of Dammar varnish made from a natural plant resin. During Katrina, the canvas had been under water for around eight hours, swelling with moisture and shrinking again as it dried, which caused extensive warping and paint loss. At Winterthur damage to the varnish was apparent, but the conservators wanted to assess the damage to the paint underneath the varnish, as well as to the canvas itself.

The conservators’ first task was to remove the dammar varnish applied by the New Orleans Conservation Guild. Several solvents were tested, and finally a solution of equal parts of acetone, petroleum benzene, and isopropanol was successful in removing it. It turned out that the blanching was limited to the varnish, and the paint underneath the varnish was revealed to be unharmed by the salt water. However, because of the warping of the canvas, the portrait did suffer flaking and loss of paint.

To correct the warping of the canvas, conservation student Kristen de Ghetaldi placed small tabs along the perimeter of the canvas and pulled them slightly every day for several days to eventually achieve an overall evenness of the canvas. The painting was also kept for six hours in a humidification chamber before the in-painting (painting in the areas where there had been paint loss) could begin. Davis’s portrait is now fully conserved and restored.

La Bella

Purchased in Europe and brought to Mississippi by Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, in 1870, La Bella possibly reminded Mrs. Davis of her young daughter Winnie. But the history of the painting’s origin is unclear. It depicts a woman wearing a 16th-century gown and an angelic smile. She carries an air of mystery, looking out with eyes both knowing and innocent—and for the WUDPAC conservators the portrait was indeed mysterious. At first glance it appears to be a slightly larger version of the original La Bella, painted in the 16th-century studio of Palma Vecchio that presently hangs in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid. But for the conservators it was not clear whether the one from Beauvoir was made in the same 16th-century studio or was copied later. To properly conserve the painting, a primary part of their work was to determine the date of La Bella’s creation.

Since painters’ pigments have changed over the years, a common method of dating paintings uses chemical analysis to identify the elements in the pigments. Matching up the elements used in the painting with those known to have been used during certain periods in art history will provide clues to the date of origin. The conservators used ultraviolet scans of La Bella to identify the areas that were left untouched by previous restoration; this is possible because restored areas appear dark under an ultraviolet light. They then subjected 20-µm segments of the unrestored areas of the painting to X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy to identify the chemical makeup of the pigments. XRF spectroscopy is a nondestructive technique that allows researchers to identify the elements in a particular pigment by the characteristic secondary X-rays emitted from a sample. As X-rays bombard an object, inner-shell electrons are ejected from atoms. Outer-shell electrons then fill the vacancies that are left in the inner shell and emit their excess energy as secondary X-rays. The characteristic peaks of the fluorescent X-rays identify the elements present; the peaks’ height indicates the elements’ relative quantities.

With their knowledge of the history of European painting, the conservators had some idea of what to expect from the results of the XRF spectroscopy. Analysis was done on the red, blue, and green areas of La Bella, the predominant colors in the figure’s robe. All of the colors showed evidence of lead, which was used in white primer coats of paint before titanium white was first marketed in the 1920s. Having found lead in the primer coat, conservators could date the painting to a range from the 1500s to 1870, when it was purchased.

With their knowledge of the history of European painting, the conservators had some idea of what to expect from the results of the XRF spectroscopy.

There were several possible types of pigment that conservators might find in the red paint. Starting in the 14th century European painters often used mercury-rich vermilion for pigment, and many painters still use vermilion today. In the 1500s organic red pigments made from ground female cochineal beetles came to Europe from the Americas. This red color results from carminic acid, produced by the beetles as a protective substance. Chromium red was first used in the early 1800s. Since La Bella was bought in 1870, the conservators were able to rule out the possibility of detecting cadmium, which painters began using in the 1920s. In the final analysis the red pigment showed mercury, and so the conservators were able to identify vermilion red. But since vermilion red has been used continually since the 1300s, the red was not helpful in narrowing the date of the painting.

In analyzing the blue paint the conservators saw many possibilities for further clues. Cobalt chloride is found in smalt, a pigment used from 1475 to 1825, made of ground ancient glass. The expensive and luxurious ground lapis lazuli, a complex compound of soda, silica, alumina, and sulfur, was favored in the Renaissance, and it was often saved by painters only for the robe of the Madonna. In their contracts with artists Renaissance patrons would sometimes show off their wealth by specifying the amount of blue to put into paintings. Today true lapis lazuli is still the most expensive blue pigment, although synthetic ultramarine, introduced in 1894, is chemically identical and much cheaper. Prussian blue, containing iron, was first used around 1700, and cobalt blue, containing cobalt oxide and aluminum oxide, came into use in about 1802. In the late 1800s painters began using cerulean blue, made of cobalt stannate. The XRF spectroscopy of the blue revealed only cobalt, frustrating the conservators, as some form of cobalt appears in most blue pigments other than ultramarine.

With little to help them narrow the date down from a near 400-year range, conservators turned to the green paint for better clues. Malachite, a copper carbonate, was used as a green pigment from ancient times until the early 1800s. The use of verdigris, a copper acetate, began during the Roman empire but completely died out by the early 1900s. Highly poisonous emerald green was used starting in 1814 and contains copper and arsenic. In the mid-1800s painters began using chromium in various green pigments, including chromium green and viridian, or chromium oxide dihydrate. The XRF examination of the green showed chromium, which proved that La Bella had been painted no earlier than the mid-1800s—around the time that Mrs. Davis purchased the painting. Lauren Cox, a WUDPAC graduate student conservator, speculated that Mrs. Davis probably saw the original 16th-century La Bella while in Europe, and it reminded her so much of Winnie that she commissioned a copy.

Once the mystery was solved, conservation of the painting could begin. The New Orleans Conservation Guild’s work a year before Katrina had helped La Bella maintain much of its integrity through the storm. Although the bottom portion of the painting had been under water for several hours and there was a small puncture to the canvas, La Bella’s paint loss and canvas damage were minimal compared with that found in the portraits of Winnie and Davis. As with the two other paintings, conservators cleaned La Bella, removed previous restoration efforts, restretched the canvas, revarnished, and restored areas of paint loss. La Bella now looks like it just emerged from the artist’s studio, which, in a way, it has.

The library and mansion at Beauvoir are scheduled to reopen to the public in the summer of 2008. Artifact search and recovery on the estate is completed, and 3,814 artifacts have been photographed, inventoried, and stored. Much has yet to be done at Beauvoir before the salvaged collection can return to its rightful place. Stabilization, construction, and restoration of the two buildings are set to be completed in the spring of 2008. However, when the estate reopens, the paintings of Jefferson Davis, his daughter Winnie, and La Bella will be hanging in their original spots, looking like new. With the tool of chemistry at the center of some of their most important work, the conservators on the Winterthur estate have made an important contribution to preserving the historical heritage of the United States.