By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
After decades in storage, the 19th-century painting “The Dead Christ Mourned (The Three Maries) after Carracci” has found a place of prominence in the Gill and Augusta Brown Holland Gallery in the Speed Art Museum, 2035 S. Third St.
The painting, which belongs to the Archdiocese of Louisville, went on display at the Speed Oct. 12 following a lengthy restoration process. The 1824 painting by Kentucky native Matthew Harris Jouett will remain at the museum for the next five years.
Father Martin Linebach, vicar general of the archdiocese, presided at the unveiling. He said it was fitting that day to reflect on the book of Genesis and how “God works through human genius.”
He also reflected on the relationship between the museum and the archdiocese.
“It’s a beautiful spirit of collaboration between the Archdiocese of Louisville and the Speed Art Museum. We’re thankful for the history of collaboration,” said Father Linebach. “This partnership has allowed our local church the opportunity to share with the larger community some of our most treasured works of art.”
Father Linebach noted that the Archdiocese of Louisville loaned the museum “The Conversion of William of Aquitaine by Saint Bernard” by Flemish painter Gaspar de Crayer in 2008 in honor of the archdiocese’s bicentennial.
“The Dead Christ Mourned” is an 8-by-10 foot oil on linen canvas. The work of art depicts a scene after Jesus Christ was crucified and removed from the cross. Three women — believed to be Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas, themselves grieving — attempt to comfort the Blessed Virgin Mary in the throes of her agony as she cradles Christ’s body in her lap.
The artist, Matthew Harris Jouett, was a well-known portrait painter from the 1800s. He made it along with his apprentice John Grimes.
The painting is a copy of a smaller work of art by Annibale Carracci — an Italian Baroque artist born in 1560. The original, which measures about 3-by-3.5-feet, hangs today in the National Gallery in London. Jouett likely copied it from an engraving found in a Bible, said Tim Tomes, archivist for the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Tomes was hired as archivist this summer, but took up the project to restore the painting as a volunteer four years ago — an accomplishment that drew an apostolic blessing from Pope Francis.
There are many unknowns surrounding the painting, such as how it arrived in Louisville, said Tomes.
It was auctioned off shortly after Jouett’s death in 1827. It has been in the possession of the archdiocese since the mid-1800s. Archived photos show the painting hanging above the organ in the Cathedral of the Assumption. It was removed in the mid-1970s as the cathedral underwent renovations and placed into storage, said Tomes.
In 2003, while the painting was being transported, it was damaged and put back in storage until Tomes came across it a few years later. At the time, he was volunteering with the archdiocese’s Office of Archives.
“Even in its damaged state, it moved me,” Tomes said of the painting. “I felt like I became a part of the scene. Not only were the three Maries weeping, I was too.”
“It’s a very emotionally-charged scene,” said Tomes during a recent interview. “Art is created to evoke emotion. I felt it could still do that.”
Tomes set out on what he described as an “Indiana Jones adventure” — which included raising $80,000 from 48 donors — to have the painting restored.
“After learning of its connection to the art world of Kentucky, it became a quest to save it for the people of Kentucky,” he said. “Its value comes from its effect on the heart as well as its place in the history of Kentucky art.”
The work to restore Jouett’s painting was done by the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) — a non-profit art conservation center in Cleveland.
Andrea Chevalier is director of conservation and head of paintings conservation at ICA. Chevalier said during a recent interview that the restoration was a “major project.”
The canvas was distorted and had several tears, there were areas with loose paint and the surface had several coatings of varnish that had darkened over time. She noted, however, the painting was still in very good condition considering it is almost 200 years old.
Chevalier and her colleagues applied water-soluble adhesive to the areas with loose paint — one of the first steps before the painting could be transported to ICA.
Work to restore the painting included removing dirt and varnish, flattening the canvas, realigning and repairing tears, using conservation grade paint to fill in areas with lost paint and lining the canvas.
Overall, the painting spent two years at ICA, said Chevalier.
“As conservators, we examine artwork more closely than anyone has since the artist painted it. We get many details about the technique and how painting has changed over time and that’s a big privilege,” said Chevalier.
The painting’s original frame, made of eastern white pine, was also restored and coated with 22-carat gold leaf by Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, D.C.
Erika Holmquist-Wall, a curator of European painting and sculpture at the Speed, also worked behind the scenes with Tomes, guiding him through the process to revive the painting.
“We’ve had a long relationship with the Archdiocese of Louisville simply because of the nature of their art collection,” said Holmquist-Wall during a recent interview.
These paintings tell a story, she said. Because the “Dead Christ Mourned” is a Kentucky painting it has historical importance, said Holmquist-Wall. “The fact that we know and were able to trace its early history is pretty exciting. It tells a really good story.”
She described the restoration work of “The Dead Christ Mourned” as “really impressive.”
“I’m hoping that other paintings in the archdiocese will be restored as well,” she said.
The painting will be on display at the museum for the next five years.