- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

BALTIMORE — Eric Gordon recently used his sleuthing skills to solve an art historical cold case. Art conservators are the museum world’s equivalent of the forensic specialists portrayed on the popular TV series “CSI.”

They spend hours collecting and analyzing tiny specks of paint and varnish under microscopes to determine the authenticity of old treasures.

Mr. Gordon, head of the paintings conservation department at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, recently discovered that a haunting, imaginary landscape by the Hudson River School artist George Inness, believed to have been destroyed more than a century ago, still exists — at least, three major pieces of it.

He spent the past three years tracking down and analyzing the fragments to restore and reassemble a sizable portion of the Inness painting, “The New Jerusalem.” The restored work is now on view at the Walters through January.

The artist completed it in 1867 as one of three related pictures called the “Triumph of the Cross.” The visionary landscape of tree-lined riverbanks, domed buildings and blue-streaked, golden yellow sky is considered by scholars to be a milestone in his career.

“This painting is enormously important because it belongs to the only multipart series painted by Inness,” says Rachael Z. DeLue, assistant professor of art history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Ms. DeLue is author of the forthcoming book, “George Inness and the Science of Landscape,” due out in December.

“It’s also significant because it represents a departure from his usual work in being explicitly allegorical,” adds Ms. DeLue. The “Triumph of the Cross” series, she explains, was inspired by John Bunyan’s 17th-century book, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” which was immensely popular in the 1800s.

Each of the three Inness paintings represents a different stage in Bunyan’s allegorical tale of a pilgrimage to heaven. With its ghostly skyline of domes and minarets set against an evening sky, “The New Jerusalem” represented the ultimate celestial destination.

The painting also reflected the artist’s newfound devotion to the teachings of the Swedish scientist-turned-theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Swedenborg believed that the spiritual realm was reflected in the external world, a notion embraced by a number of American artists and writers of the 19th century, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert and Elizabeth Browning.

In 1867, the same year that he painted the trio, Inness published an article on the spiritual significance of colors in the New Jerusalem Messenger, a Swedenborgian newspaper. The artist continued to explore this theory, and in later years his paintings became looser and more atmospheric to express the otherworldliness of nature.

In 1880, “The New Jerusalem” was being displayed at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City when part of the building collapsed, killing three persons and presumably destroying the artwork.

As it turned out, the artwork was not completely demolished. Portions were retrieved and refashioned by Inness into new paintings. One of those, “The Valley of the Olives,” was eventually purchased by museum founder Henry Walters for his growing art collection. When art restorers tried to clean the painting in the 1930s, they mistook Inness’ retouching of his original canvas as an insensitive alteration and, in trying to remove it, damaged portions of the sky.

The marred canvas was returned to storage, where it remained until Michael Quick, an Inness expert based in Santa Monica, Calif., arrived at the Walters in 1999 to look at it. Based on his extensive study of Inness, the art scholar thought that the canvas could be part of a larger work.

“With its archaic buildings, it didn’t make sense in terms of the artist’s other paintings from this period,” says Mr. Quick, interviewed by phone last month. Another missing piece of “The New Jerusalem,” he speculated, could be a scene of trees in the collection of the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Ill., once thought to be a view of Central Park. A larger landscape now owned by a private collector in North Carolina also seemed like a remnant of a larger composition.

“It suddenly occurred to me that all the pictures could work together,” Mr. Quick says. “The Walters painting has half of an arched bridge, and the private painting has another half of a bridge. The horizon line on them seemed to fit together.”

Even after seeing the Walters painting, Mr. Quick wasn’t certain that his theory was correct. “I couldn’t be absolutely sure, because I was working with black-and-white photos on a different scale from the actual paintings,” he says. “I wasn’t seeing the paintings all together in the same room.”

Enter Mr. Gordon.

Excited about Mr. Quick’s ideas, he borrowed the paintings from the Krannert and the North Carolina collector to compare their appearance and technique against the Walters canvas.

“The a-ha moment came when we got all three pictures here and aligned them so the horizon line matched,” says Mr. Gordon. “It was instantly apparent that they belonged together.”

Still, he sought incontrovertible scientific proof.

Testing of the three revealed that the thread count in the canvases and the pigments in the paints were the same. “One of the most important things that I learned was the technique that Inness used,” says Mr. Gordon, who examined the stratification of tiny paint samples under a microscope. “He would apply one layer of paint and let it dry before applying another layer.”

Understanding the artist’s technique helped Mr. Gordon restore the Walters painting to its original appearance. To repair the golden sky with its wispy blue clouds, he brushed on tiny strokes of watercolor and acrylic so that they did not blend with the original oil paint and varnish. Other layers of paint were carefully removed to expose the domed buildings that Inness had painted over in the 1880s to make them look like grand country houses.

The newly restored Inness canvas now hangs next to its companions from the Krannert Art Museum and the private collector within a yellow panel that corresponds to the size of the original canvas.

“Seeing the three together is jaw-dropping,” says Ms. DeLue. “To have this [painting] reappear is incredibly exciting for art historians.”

“Search for Lost Jerusalem,” a short documentary about the rediscovery and conservation of the Inness painting, airs tonight on Maryland Public Television at 6 p.m.

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