(from front) Linda Witkowski, Morgan Hayes and Christina Milton O'Connell inch their way over the canvas of "America." Photo by Carolyn West

Back to glory

In its 90-plus years, The American Legion has amassed a collection of artifacts and art from World War I on, much of it donated to the Legion for various reasons. One of the most striking pieces is "America," a towering 6-by-10 symbolic color portrait in the Greek style, painted in France and presented to the Legion as a gesture of appreciation for U.S. involvement in the Great War. After decades on the stage of the NEC Room at American Legion National Headquarters, the painting has gotten some much needed attention.

A team from the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Regional Services Program - Linda Witkowski, senior conservator of paintings and the project manager; Christina Milton O'Connell, associate conservator of paintings; and Morgan Hayes, a graduate summer intern in the Conservation Department who came to Indianapolis from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation - had been working on "America" since the Spring Meetings in May ended, hoping to restore to the painting much of its original luster.

Léon Reni-Mel was an officer in the French army and official artist for the French Ministry of War, a position he would hold through the 1960s. During World War I, he drew a pen-and-ink sketch of a U.S. doughboy assisting a wounded French soldier, which ran in the New York Herald. He then decided to reproduce that sketch in oils. Starting on Armistice Day, it took Reni-Mel nearly a year to complete. "America" was presented at a banquet in Paris in August 1921, attended by Legion officials and French dignitaries, at which it was announced, "The Symbol is so important that the French Government will present it to The American Legion in the name of Reni-Mel," as the French president wrote at the time.

"America" first reached National Headquarters just before Memorial Day 1922, then went on public display in Indianapolis. It was then shipped for display in the window of the D.H. Holmes Co. department store in New Orleans in October 1922, for the Legion national convention; Reni-Mel addressed the floor. He had written earlier that year that "it gives me the greatest pleasure ... to know that this painting is now in the hands of my American Comrades, whose service to Franch I have sought to portray and idealise in the painting." After that whirlwind trip, it returned to National Headquarters, where it has stayed.

The IMA team was first contacted by American Legion Library staff in late 2009 to look at white splashes on the lower part of the painting. The concern was that they had come from polish used on the brass railing that protects the piece. According to Witkowski, there was no damage, but the team determined that the painting was greatly in need of cleaning, which had last been done in 1998 by an outside company.

"We're taking a painting that is 80 years old, and in its lifetime, it had been subject to nicotine [smoking was only disallowed in the NEC Room in 2006, when an Indianapolis city-county ordinance went into effect], soot, dirt, resinous coatings applied to it back maybe in 1922-1923, had yellowed," Witkowski explained, "... with further investigation, we've been able to determine that from the subsequent cleaning attempts on this painting, not all of the old grime and dirt and varnish was completely removed." Actually, only the sky and part of the soldier's face had ever been touched. O'Connell offered that this is sometimes deliberately done by those caring for artworks, for a "more dramatic transformation - we can see evidence of that there; someone has really scrubbed the surface."

The team began drawing up a plan of attack, and in the meantime, Witkowski, O'Connell and another staff member tackled the cleaning of the seals that adorn each wooden desk in the NEC Room. "We went and sat at each of these desks ... that was a fun project," Witkowski said. "There's so much history in the drawers!"

Because of the issues involved in removing the painting from National Headquarters, it was decided to complete the work on site, moving "America" to a small room just outside the NEC Room. The team brought an exhaust system of their own from the IMA for the fumes, and Legion maintenance staff helped to set it up. Since May, the team had gone over the painting bit by bit, using special solvents and ultraviolet light to get rid of the accumulated grime and varnish without taking off any of the oil paint. Hayes, who came to the project after work had begun, stated that "it was a very dramatic change" already. "It's very satisfying."

Now, well over 200 work hours later, the cleaning has been completed, and the painting re-placed in the NEC Room. Aspects of the painting unappreciated for decades - such as the title along the bottom, and the signatures of Gen. John Pershing and Marshal Ferdinand Foch on either side of the title - have burst into life for viewers. Witkowski said that the painting has "a wonderful textural quality ... the soldiers almost become three-dimensional."

Conservation, not restoration, is the IMA's watchword. "We're trying, to the best of our ability, and in the materials that we may use ... to preserve and protect the painting as it was originally intended by the artist," Witkowski said. That means taking into account both the piece itself and its surroundings. "It's not just an image," she continued. "It's an artifact that has multiple layers - it has a back, it has a frame. We look at all of those layers." That means darkening the color of the wall the painting hangs on, and adjusting the light shining on it to the left - the sorts of things Reni-Mel included on a list of instructions he had sent to the Legion along with "America" for its best presentation and preservation. Witkowski is concerned with these, as well, and considers that part of the true nature of conservation.

The Regional Services Program has done similar projects for many different institutions in Indiana over the past 30 years - universities, historical societies, corporations, etc. - but Witkowski said the team is "proud to be a part of this project." The team has posted the first of several entries on their work with "America" to the IMA's blog. Future visitors to National Headquarters should take care to make it to the fourth floor and the NEC Room, where Witkowski concluded that "the public, for the first time in several years, is going to see the painting aged, but closer to how the artist intended it to look." And as The American Legion begins to gear up for its centennial in 2019, "America" will serve as a shining example of what brought it into being.