Pitt-Bradford restores a 19th century painting, lost for half a century and found in a Bradford warehouse
This is the story of an amazing discovery: a 19th century painting, lost for more than 50 years, was rediscovered in a warehouse in Bradford near the start of the pandemic. Conservators spent a year and a half restoring the damaged work to its full glory. And on Friday, October 29, the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford will reveal the painting and premiere a documentary about the restoration.
When you look at the massive oil painting, you can almost hear the gentle slosh of water as gondolas glide along a canal in Venice. A minstrel stands in one boat playing for richly dressed riders who lounge beneath a golden canopy. In the distance you see the famous Basilica di San Marco.
The scene is set in the Renaissance era, but the painting was completed in the 19th century by Italian painter Tommaso Juglaris. The painting is called “Paolo Veronese in Venice,” named for a renaissance artist Juglaris admired who is depicted in the painting.
“The painting was done in 1879,” said Patty Colosimo, director of arts programming at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. “It was actually exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1880. And it received an honorable mention.”
Colosimo spearheaded the restoration project. She said the painting is huge: 8 feet high by 16 feet wide.
Juglaris left Italy in 1870 to seek his fortune as an artist in Paris in 1880. He came to the U.S. to work for a famous lithographer. So, Colosimo said, “he rolled up the painting and brought it with him.”
She said the painter was afraid he would destroy the painting if he kept rolling it up. So he was looking for a buyer. And finally he found one.
“The painting was sold to Lewis Emery who was a very prominent citizen of Bradford, PA at the time,” Colosimo said. “He was a world traveler, and he moved here during the Big Oil Boom Back in the 1800s in Bradford.”
Emery made a fortune in the oil business, so he had plenty of room to hang that huge painting in his Bradford home.
“After his passing,” Colosimo said,”his daughter built the Emery Hotel in town in his honor. And she took the painting, put it on the wall in the hotel.”
That's where the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford comes in. In 1963, the university purchased the Emery Hotel for dormitory space, and all the contents of the hotel came with that purchase, including the painting. But when renovations were complete on the dormitory, there wasn't a wall big enough for it. So the framed painting was stored in a warehouse where it lay forgotten for decades -- forgotten by everyone except the family that owned that warehouse. Alan Swanson, the owner, was about to retire in 2019 when he remembered a story his grandfather told his father and gave Pitt-Bradford a call.
“Of course, he was told by his father that one day if you're emptying out or retiring, that painting back there belongs to the university and you need to get it to them,” Colosimo said. “And that's how the phone call happened. It’s just amazing and quite a fascinating story.”
And at that point in time, no one at Pitt-Bradford knew that this painting existed.
“No, we did not,” Colosimo said, “We did not.”
Fortunately the painting was tightly sealed in a crate but she said it still suffered from the elements.
“There was a lot of damage to the painting,” Colosimo said, ”but it could have been worse. It was in the warehouse that had no heat. It was right beside a couple of windows that did not have glass but they were covered in plastic but rain was coming through the ceiling.”
So the painting was in need of serious restoration before they could hang it in Pitt-Bradford's Blaisdell Hall.
“No one had its studio that large,” Colosimo said. “I eventually found Johnson & Griffiths out of Harrisburg, the conservatories for the State Capitol.”
She said the restoration project took from June of 2020 to October of this year. She says the university hired a production company to make a documentary film about the project as well. The documentary, called “Reclaiming History,” chronicles the details of the restoration process, and the story surrounding the painting.
At one point in the documentary, a young woman talks about the process to repair the painting.
“I'm gonna inject it with syringes underneath a very vulnerable pieces of paint," said Hayley Madl. "And then after it dries, it'll kind of act like a vacuum and suck it back down. And that keeps all the little paint chips together when we transport it.”
Madl, a Pitt-Bradford student, was one of the research interns for the film. She found information on the Fesenmyer family. They are the descendants of Lewis Emery who bought the painting.
“They have amazing scrapbooks put together by one of the Fesenmyers,” Madl said. “She collected all kinds of things like dance cards and newspaper clippings. And we got to look at those and anything else that we could find of late 19th century Bradford, Pennsylvania.”
Madl has graduated from Pitt-Bradford now and is working on her Ph.D. in American history at George Mason University. But she says her documentary internship gave her a new perspective.
“One of the things that I took away from this experience is to not discount those small time histories," Madl said. "There are things beyond these huge narratives that exist within history and that they're equally important and equally entertaining.”
And sometimes, as with the Juglaris painting in Bradford, they’re also beautiful to look at.