Letter From John Trumbull Relative To His Paintings In The Rotunda

Read and laid upon the Table, December 9, 1828.

To the Hon. the Speaker of the House of Representatives, U. S.

Sir: On the 30th of May last, I received from the Commissioner of the Public Buildings a copy of the resolution of the honorable the House of Representatives, dated the 26th of May, authorizing him to take the proper measures for securing the paintings in the Rotundo from the effect of dampness, under my direction.

I had always regarded the perpetual admission of damp air into the Rotundo from the crypt below, as the great cause of the evil required to be remedied ; and, of course, considered the effectual closing of the aperture which had been left in the centre of the floor as an indispensible part of remedy. I had communicated my opinions on this subject to the Chairman of the Committee on the Public Buildings, and had been informed that this had been ordered to be done.

So soon, therefore, as I received information from the Commissioner that this work was completed, (as well as an alteration in the skilight, which I had suggested,) and that the workmen and incumbrances were removed out of the room, I came on.


All the paintings were taken down, removed from their frames, taken off from the panels over which they are strained, removed to a dry warm room, and there separately and carefully examined. The material which forms the ba^is of these paintings is a linen cloth, whose strength and texture is very similar to that used in the top gallant-sails of a ship of war. The substances employed in forming a proper surface for the artist, together with the colors, oils, etc. employed by him in his work, form a sufficient protection for the threads of the canvas on this face, but the back remains bare, and, of course, exposed to the delec-terious influence of damp air. The effect of this is first seen in the form of milldew ; it was this which I dreaded ; and the examination showed that milldew was already commenced, and to an extent which rendered it manifest that the continuence of the same exposure, which they had hitherto undergone, for a very few years longer, would have accomplished the complete decomposition or rotting of the canvas, and the consequent destruction of the paintings. The first thing to be done was to dry the canvas perfectly, which was accomplished by laying down each picture successively on its face, upon a clean dry carpet, and exposing the back to the influence of the warmth of a dry and well aired room. The next thing was to devise and apply some substance which would act permanently as a preservative against future possible exposure.

I had learned that, a few years ago, some of the eminent chemists of France had examined with great care several of the ancient mummies of Egypt, with a view to ascertain the nature of the substance employed by the embalmers, which the lapse of so many ages had proved to possess the power o{ protecting from decay a substance otherwise so perishable as the human body. This examination had proved that, after the application of liquid asphaU turn to the cavities of the head and body, the whole had been wrapped carefully in many envelopes, or bandages of linen, prepared with wax. The committee of chemists decided further, after a careful examination and analysis of the hieroglyphic paintings with which the cases, etc. are covered, that the colors employed, and still retaining their vivid brightness, had also been prepared and applied with the same substance.

I also knew that, towards the close of the last century, the Antiquarian Society of England had been permitted to open and examine the stone coffin deposited in one of the vaults of Westminster Abbey, and said to contain the body of King Edward I., who died in July, 1307. On removing the stone lid of the coffin, its contents were found to be closely enveloped in a strong linen cloth, waxed. Within this envelope were found splendid robes of silk, enriched with various ornaments covering the body, which was found to be entire, and to have been wrapped carefully in all its parts, even to each separate finger, in bandages of fine linen, which had been dipped in melted wax ; and not only was the body not decomposed, but the various parts of the dress, such as a scarlet satin mantle, and a scarlet piece of sarsnet which was placed over the face, were in perfect preservation, even to their colors. The knowledge of these facts persuaded me that wax, applied to the back of the paintings, would form the best defence, hitherto known to exist, against the destructive effects of damp and stagnant air ; and therefore:


Common beeswax was melted over the fire with an equal quantity (in bulk) of oil of turpentine ; and this mixture, by the help of large brushes, was applied hot to the back of each cloth, and was afterwards rubbed in with hot irons, until the cloths were perfectly saturated.


In the mean time, the nitches in the solid wall, in which the paintings are placed, were carefully plaistered with hydraulic cement, to prevent any possible exudation of moisture from the wall; and as there is a space from 2 to 8 inches deep between the surface of the wall and the back of the panels on which the cloths are strained, I caused small openings to be cut into the wall, above and under the edge of the frames, and communicating with those vacant spaces, for the purpose of admitting the air of the room behind the paintings, and thus keeping up a constant ventilation, by means of which the same temperature of air will be maintained at the back of the paintings as on their face.


The cloths were finally strained upon panels, for the purpose of guarding against injury from careless or intentional blows of sticks, canes, etc., or childrens' missiles. These panels are perforated with many holes, to admit the air freely to the back of the cloths ; and being perfectly dried, were carefully painted, to prevent the wood from absorbing or transmitting any humidity. The whole were then restored to their places, and finally cleaned with care, and slightly revarnished. '«