George Bellows’ Pennsylvania Excavation (1907), a grittily realistic depiction of the construction of New York’s massive Pennsylvania Station, was the Smith College Museum of Art’s most important acquisition of 2010. There was just one problem: The painting was in an ornate Louis XIV-–style frame with a linen liner—hardly appropriate for a work of Ashcan School art from turn-of-the-century America.
“That’s the frame that it was probably put in in the 1950s,” SCMA director Jessica Nicoll ’83 says. “It doesn’t in any way relate to the kinds of choices we see George Bellows making for his paintings in the early years of the century.”
To design a more period-appropriate frame, Nicoll called on apprentices in SCMA’s Frame Conservation Program. Led by William Myers, the program trains Smith and other Five College students and recent graduates in the conservation and reproduction of historic frames.
The apprentices who worked on the design and production of the historically accurate new frame “did an unbelievable job researching the frames that Bellows used in that time period and getting advice from curators,” Nicoll says.
Many of the students who have passed through the SCMA conservation workshop are now employed throughout the United States and Europe, Myers says.
The painting’s new frame is much simpler than its predecessor, with so-called reeded molding, which draws the viewer’s eye into the painting, project participant Breana Latty ’11 says. “With the chaotic scene of the painting, it was important that the frame not distract from the movement Bellows creates,” Latty says.
Pennsylvania Excavation goes back on view this month following the refurbishment of the top two floors of the Smith College Museum of Art.
This story appears in the Fall ’14 Quarterly