Auction helps fund restoration of 'Louine' painting donated to Pittsburgh Public Schools



"Louine" has seen better times.

The 1918 oil painting of an elegant woman in a yellow dress and a large black-brimmed hat once graced the cover of Town & Country magazine and was donated to the Pittsburgh Public Schools in the early years of the Friends of Art.

But over the decades, "Louine," which Malcolm Stephens Parcell painted, has become dirty, the painting has become loose on the canvas stretcher, and, worst of all, it met with an unfortunate accident when a school ceiling panel being removed to change a light bulb fell and caused a 11/2-inch gash in the canvas in the background beside the model.

As a result, "Louine" has been in storage instead of hanging in a school hallway and becoming the subject of student essays, such as one on the Internet that said despite fading and darkening, "the painting still captures the beauty and realism of this portrait."

Help is on the way for "Louine" and some of the other 325 pieces that Friends of Art donated to the district since 1916, largely purchased from the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual Exhibition.

The district is able to begin repair and restoration of the some of the works, thanks to proceeds from the sale of a painting that yielded about $750,000 for the district last year in a Sotheby's auction.

The sold painting -- which was by far the most valuable work in the collection -- was a 1931 oil painting called "Interior, Light from the Window" by French painter Henri Le Sidaner. It was particularly unusual because the collection generally comprises regional artists' work.

The proceeds are earmarked for care of the Friends of Art collection in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

On Wednesday, the school board approved spending $60,250 of that money, including paying for some reframing and restoration of canvas and paper for about 10 percent of the collection.

The money will be spent three ways: Concept Art Gallery, which is the collection's appraiser, will handle matting and framing. Christine Daulton will be the conservator of paintings and restore the canvas works. Wendy Bennett will handle paper restorations.

Last fall, Concept Art Gallery was awarded $12,000 for appraisal services.

Most of the works are on display in schools, and some are at the school board headquarters. Some were placed into storage after school buildings closed.

While the district hasn't had issues of vandalism, some of the works are showing wear and tear from being bumped while moving from building to building, too much humidity and other less-than-ideal conditions.

The district is creating mini-galleries, each with at least 10 of the works, in perhaps a dozen schools that are interested in engaging the students in studying them and writing about them.

"It's a great resource for children, and it's a great legacy for Western Pennsylvania," said Jody Guy, district visual arts coordinator.

Friends of Art is preparing for its centennial in 2016, including a catalog of the works and an exhibit of some of them at the Heinz History Center.

Adrienne Heinrich of Murrysville, long active in Friends of Art and a leader of the upcoming anniversary celebration, said she initially was against selling the painting, but "I'm so glad that the money will be put to use to care for the paintings in the Friends of Art collection. They need monitoring constantly."

Angela Abadilla, senior program officer for arts education in city schools, said the students "who have had exposure to the pieces in our schools, their writing has been incredible."

She said writing about art helps students learn to write critically and master more vocabulary.

She said she wants all students to be able to "look at a piece of artwork or hear a piece of music and know if it's quality and being able to put it into words using the correct vocabulary."

The student who wrote about "Louine" and identified only as Alina K. on the Internet noted that the painter is from Claysville, Washington County, and that he married Louine, whom he had used repeatedly as a model, in 1937.

Friends of Art, which began in 1916, used to be called One Hundred Friends of Art because it started with a group of 100 people, each of whom donated $10 to buy art for the schools.

Syl Damianos of Edgewood, chairman of Friends of Art, said there has been a larger group of contributors more recently, each asked for $50. He said none of the money has come from foundations or businesses.

Mr. Damianos praised the vision of the founders "to give art to the kids in school, which we think is very, very important, especially now when budgets get so tight, art programs are some of the first to go."

He said the collection is a "pretty good history of the area since 1916" although the types of works selected over the years have changed. In recent years, students helped make the selections.

"When we started, we noticed there were a lot of portrait-type paintings and historical and buildings and scenes from throughout the Western Pennsylvania area," he said. "Of course, today you're getting into some that are more abstract. We've also tried to get them interested in some photographic works."

Ms. Abadilla said access to the work gives students an advantage. "They see the details. When you'‍re looking at a print or a picture of something, you'‍re not viewing it with the artist using the same materials."

While she has not seen the damaged "Louine," Ms. Daulton is optimistic she can help. She will be developing a plan to treat some of the paintings.

"Even with big tears, there isn't often a massive amount of paint loss," she said.

But her goal isn't to make the paintings look new.

"If you've got a 70-year-old painting, you don't want it to look like it was painted yesterday," Ms. Daulton said. "It's changed. It's aged. Cracking is part of that. We don't want the cracks to be so obtrusive you can't see the painting anymore, but we don't want to deny they're there."

Pictures of most of the works in the collection can be found on the Internet on an Associated Artists of Pittsburgh page at flickr.com/photos/associatedartists/sets/72157627584941153.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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