19th c. Oil Painting Restoration Caveats and Tips for Vintage Art Collectors – Maritime Painting Exam Notes

It may surprise you that many of the paintings of ships that highlight a particular ship with its flags and name clearly visible are actually a portrait of the ship. Portraits of ships were very popular at the middle and the end of the 1800s. It is also interesting to know that many of these paintings of ships hung in the cabins of the ship in the painting. Therefore some of these paintings have had serious time at sea.

It is very common, therefore, that maritime paintings have been in very bad conditions and circumstances. Bouncing around the ocean along with the ship is only part of the problem. Of course high humidity and actual water are serious problems. And you can imagine as things swing around the cabin in high seas how easy it is that these paintings on canvas get punctured and ripped. If you don’t already know, 19th century oil paintings (of all kinds of paintings from all countries) have extremely brittle fabric as they age… and rip easily.

Another serious setback to the normal health of paintings of ships is the fact that people on the ships are used to fixing everything themselves so when the painting needed cleaning or needed a rip repaired or needed new varnish it was worked on by the handy guy on the ship with poor quality materials and bad restoration techniques. They had no idea what materials and art conservation techniques helped or hurt long term preservation.

It is, in fact, surprising to find a 19th century maritime painting that hasn’t been treated very poorly and repaired very poorly.

Up to now I’ve been talking about portraits of ships for ocean vessels. You can imagine that river and lake vessels would not be so hard on a painting as in the ocean. But still, life on a boat is not ideal for the long term preservation of an oil painting.

Given how common inept restorations are on these types of paintings, some of the common things that I’ve encountered may be good for you to know:

  • If you own a maritime painting and have to get an appraisal. The supposed value could be quite different than the actual value once the actual condition is determined. For instance, one of the types of damage that first results in a substantial decrease in value is damage to the rigging from cleaning. Redrawing or repainting the missing rigging does not restore the value on the open market, according to the dealers that I have worked with.
  • If you are thinking of buying a painting of a ship, this “tip” could save you $10,000’s either from paying too much or to give you something to use to negotiate.

Consider also the following condition issues on maritime paintings:

  1. Other easily damaged details are white water caps and foam in the water easily removed when paintings are scrubbed.
  2. 19th century maritime paintings often are painted with a porous paint quality that is easily stained in the clouds in the sky. In addition the ground layer or the gesso layer under the paint is often easily stained while aging as it was common to brush the back of the painting with the resin that discolored badly. Most of the pigments on these paintings are transparent and so the staining of the gesso or ground layers show through.

Almost all of the old varnishes used to coat these paintings were resins and varnishes that were used on ships. That means they discolored very badly and do-it-yourself-urs find it very difficult to remove without damaging the original paint.

Once scrubbed, repainting is done with a big brush and oil paint, which of course, does additional damage and further erodes the value and authenticity. Here is short video showing some paintings that were in our art conservation lab recently. It includes the testimonial of a painting’s owner who decided to do a partial treatment to improve (remove the previous poor quality restorations) the appearance of just the water.

What do you think? How “worth it” is this type of partial restoration treatment?

Leave a comment and a thumbs up!

Contact info

Scott M. Haskins, Virginia Panizzon, Oriana Montemurro (Art Conservators)

805 564 3438 office


About Scott M. Haskins

Scott Haskins has been in professional art conservation since 1975, specializing in the conservation/restoration of easel paintings, murals and art on paper. FACL, Inc. is known nationally for doing A+ work no matter the size or difficulty of the project. We are happy to do a quick cleaning on a family heirloom. Our client list and resume is also full of very satisfied clients of large, difficult/complicated projects at remote locations. Excellent services are also available as an Expert Witness/Legal Testimony in art related matters. Consultation on art related projects occur regularly including extensive insurance evaluations for insured or insurer. Services are offered worldwide. Scott M. Haskins is also author of the "Save Your Stuff" series, educational information, materials and supplies to help people protect and save their treasured family heirlooms and collectibles at home and office. He can be reached at 805 564 3438. Video and written testimonials at https://www.fineartconservationlab.com/testimonials/
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