For new wing, MFA rolls out a masterpiece

Moves meticulous and mighty do the trick in 11 days

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 19, 2010

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After 10 years of effort and more than $500 million in fund-raising, the Museum of Fine Arts installed the first painting in its new Art of the Americas Wing yesterday, and it’s no ordinary work.

Thomas Sully’s 19th-century masterpiece “The Passage of the Delaware’’ is just the kind of painting the MFA hasn’t been able to display properly in the past. Why? It’s simply one of the largest in the museum’s collection. At 17 feet by 12 feet and weighing 1,000 pounds, with lively brushwork showing General George Washington on the banks of the Delaware River, the painting has been too big to put in a gallery.

This was no typical installation, either, with 19 staffers - from videographers, curators, and conservators to MFA director Malcolm Rogers - crowding around to watch as muscle-bound workers hoisted the gilded frame onto a wall.

“It’s a big, symbolic moment,’’ said Rogers, who scooted down to the gallery between his lunch and a trustees meeting. “After years of planning, seeing the first work of art in place is thrilling for me. It also relieves a lot of tension. We’re on our way.’’

Yesterday marked the culmination of a painstaking 11-day process in which the painting was removed from storage, unrolled, stretched, framed, and finally hung.

When the museum’s new wing opens in November, “The Passage of the Delaware’’ will occupy a marquee spot in a gallery steps from a new glass-enclosed central courtyard. The expansion - in the works for a decade - adds 133,491 square feet to the museum’s footprint, a 28 percent increase, with galleries displaying work from North, Central, and South America.

The Sully painting will not be entirely new to many museumgoers. Until 1998, it hung in a cavernous second-floor passageway near an escalator. Then, over 14 months starting in January 2007, it underwent a meticulous restoration process - on view to the public near the Huntington Avenue entrance - by conservator Charlotte Ameringer.

The MFA also found the picture’s original frame, which had been in storage for more than a century, and restored it, covering the worn bronze paint with gold leaf and building new ornamental corners to replicate the original. In all, the museum said, the conservation work took 4,000 staff hours.

Why so much effort?

In some ways, it is the first time Sully’s painting has had a proper home. The State of North Carolina originally commissioned the 1819 work, but rejected it for being too big. A Boston gallery owner then purchased it for $500 in 1823 before selling it the same year to the now defunct New England Museum. The painting went to another since-shuttered institution, the Boston Museum, in 1841, before being given to the MFA in 1903.

The museum’s latest installation process began Feb. 8. First, MFA staffers moved the massive, rolled-up canvas out of storage into the gallery. The canvas had been wrapped up slowly, with a thin layer of paper protecting the work, and the entire roll had been covered in plastic, held by lightly tied strips of cloth.

According to Ameringer, rolling a painting flexes the paint film, but the Sully had been rolled up so many times in the last two centuries that any damage from stress had already been done.

Before they unrolled it, Ameringer and a colleague laid archival paper on the floor, part of a deliberately painstaking process.

“Conservators are people who find watch repair too fast-paced,’’ said Ameringer, explaining her deliberate approach. “There are no instantaneous results. Things don’t happen quickly.’’

The next day, the MFA facilities crew - the same guys who shovel snow and unload trucks - took their positions at the end of the scroll. The men worked slowly, with Ameringer circling to check as first the gray sky, then Washington came into view, inch by inch.

On Feb. 10, Ameringer and an assistant, Sandy Kelberlau, both in their socks and wearing white gloves, delicately attached the ends of the canvas to a wooden stretcher with push pins, then used staples.

Over the next several days, the process moved gradually forward.

“I think we’re ready when you are,’’ Bryan Campbell, an MFA worker wearing a Philadelphia 76ers hat and giving off the distinct aroma of his Newports, said last Friday.

With that, a group of workers lifted the painting from the floor. Ameringer held a rubber mallet, knocking in wooden pieces at each corner to stretch the canvas just enough so it wouldn’t hang loose. Within minutes, she was done and the painting left for the long weekend.

“It’s been rolled up for a while and never been in this environment,’’ said Ameringer. “I want it to adjust. It’ll either tighten or slacken up.’’

All that led to yesterday’s action, when the canvas was installed in the frame and hung.

Workers moved electric lifts to each side, with one man aloft in each.

Below, other men tugged at the painting, which rested on a blanket to protect the frame, and slowly moved it into place.

It sounded as if a big couch was being hauled up a twisting staircase.

“Watch your feet, Davy!’’

“I think you should be an inch over.’’

“Joe, can you lean it?’’

As they worked, Elliot Bostwick Davis, who chairs the Art of the Americas department, moved nervously around the frame, noting that she could hear the sound of wood being strained.

Rogers walked to the back of the room, taking in the scene as the men attached the work to the wall and moved the lifts out of the way.

Rogers was impressed by the restoration, noting the brightness of the white of Washington’s horse and the clear definition of the other horses in silhouette.

Joe Morgan, a facilities staffer who led the crew, walked behind the director to take in the portrait. He was asked what he liked most about the painting. His positive review didn’t require an art-history degree.

“Nice and even,’’ he said, pleased with his work.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at