Many works of art have lifespans that last for centuries. For instance, a painting restored by us recently, Portrait of Young Boy, by Enoch Seeman the Younger, was painted in the early 18th century. The eyes of its subject have silently watched the passage of nearly 250 years (its frame even longer)! Yet, with long age comes eventual deterioration – this is true for artwork just as it is for most other objects. For paintings, everything from environmental changes to the specific materials used by the artist can contribute to the degradation of a piece over time. Fortunately, periodic restoration of artwork can help to significantly reverse the ravages of time. This portrait is a perfect example of the necessity, and care that goes into restoring such an old painting.
Enoch Seeman The Younger (1694-1744) was a Polish painter of moderate notoriety. Born in the city of Danzig, Poland around 1694, he was brought to London by his father in 1704. It was there, i
n 1708 (at the age of 14) that the Younger’s formal career began with a group portrait of the Bisset family, done in the style of Godfrey Kneller – a leading English portrait painter of the period. Over the next several decades, Seeman received commissions to paint at the English court, and eventually, a royal patronage from 1730-1738. Several of his most well known paintings were executed during this eight-year span, including portraits of both George I and George II (the latter is part of the royal collection at Windsor Castle) and a rendering of Sir James Dashwood. While well respected, Seeman the Younger’s style is considered to be conservative in comparison to some of his contemporaries (Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, and others).
As an artistic style, portraiture grew considerably in early modern England (16th-18th centuries). While the Protestant Reformation contributed to a decline in commissioned religious paintings, a relatively stable English government, combined with a powerful aristocracy, made portrait artistry a financially (and socially) viable profession. The market for these portraits flourished in the 18th century, and as a result, artists like Enoch Seeman the Younger congregated to wealthy areas like London. Here, respected artists were regularly commissioned for portrait paintings by a variety of individuals – from the middle classes all the way to Royalty.
The collection of portraits also became extremely popular during this period. As the style gained notoriety, members of the English upper classes began to amass large private collections. Consequently, the works of many prominent artists were spread far and wide throughout the world. At least one Enoch Seeman portrait traveled as far as Virginia during the 18th century.
Some questions currently remain unanswered about this particular Seeman painting, Portrait of a Young Man. Primarily, the name of the sitter, and by whom it was commissioned are unknown. We can, however, determine a few things. For instance, based on the subject’s attire and setting, he was most likely the member of a wealthy family. Also, the painting was almost certainly executed after Enoch Seeman arrived in London, putting its date somewhere between 1708 and 1744.
Artwork of this age almost always has an additional history as well – something fine art conservators can tell through careful examination of what a painting has gone through over the course of its lifetime. This was the case when the Portrait of a Young Man arrived at Oliver Brothers recently. The most obvious signs of age were a film of dirt and grime, some staining throughout the artwork, a dent below the subject’s hand, and areas of paint loss. There was also a significant amount of cupped craquelure throughout the artwork. This is a common problem, which can be caused by several different factors, but is most typically due to the different rates of expansion and contraction of the paint film and ground (the base layer) upon which the paint film is adhered to.