Restoring historic George Washington oil painting

- Inside the conservation laboratory at the Brooklyn Museum stands George Washington, dressed in full military costume but more cracked and worn than his oily representation once appeared, a faded Charlestown smoldering in the now matte distance.

"I started with surface cleaning to remove layers of darkened grime," Brooklyn Museum Associate Painting Conservator Lauren Bradley said.

Bradley spent the last five months reducing our nation's first president to what conservators describe as his "stripped state," removing all non-original materials left behind by past refurbishments rom this 240-year-old oil on canvas.

"Some of the work has been done under the microscope with tiny micro-scalpels," Bradley said.

John Hancock -- he of the signature -- commissioned this painting in the spring of 1776 so that he might hang it along those of other luminaries in his drawing room.

"It's incredibly important within the context of our collection," Bradley said, "but also for American history."

Only the second painting of Washington painted from life and the first time we see him represented as an American and not a British subject, this painting will travel to Philadelphia to hang on loan in the new Museum of the American Revolution when it opens in the spring, returning to the city where Washington sat for Charles Wilson Peale so he could create this work 240 years ago, painting through the summer of '76 while the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence nearby.

"Here you can see," Bradley said, pointing to a damaged section of the painting, "there's this little island of original paint here at the bottom of the canvas."

Bradley will spend the next five months restoring Washington to his near-as-possible original luster, covering a blemished lower left-hand corner -- "maybe it was heat damage because there's some blistering around the area of loss" -- using a paint line she described as "reversible" and "stable," specially formulated for conservators.

"It's straight pigment in an aldehyde binder," Bradley said, "which is a synthetic resin."

Washington received his last makeover in 1944 from founding-parent of modern conservation Caroline Keck, while her husband served overseas with The Monument Men.

Keck's original notes and photographs and some decidedly more modern navigation markers on a nearby computer monitor guide Bradley while she works and George turns his back to Boston Harbor and gazes out over one of the first conservation laboratories in the United States, now full of works in varying conditions from the last 2,000 years.

"I'll apply a new varnish to saturate all the paint colors to really bring out all the volume and three dimensional forms," Bradley said.

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