Buffalo Mural Restoration

A paradoxical figure in the history of art, Robert Winthrop Chanler’s frenetic yet lyrical compositions are demanding and destabilizing. A native New York son, Chanler was born and raised in the Hudson Valley, most active at his East 19th Street home and studio dubbed the House of Fantasy and spent the later years of his life in Woodstock. Highly sought after by New York’s elite set with work regarded as a status symbol, Chanler’s two immersive mural commissions at Planting Fields, the Buffalo Mural and Lace Room, are illustrative of the Gilded Age patronage that served as the catalyst for much of his work.

Over one hundred years ago, the Buffalo Mural was completed, or so was thought. As early as 1924 W.R. Coe wrote Chanler’s studio expressing growing concern over the flaking paint in the room. Coe’s worry foretells the universal challenges that stewards of Chanler’s mural work encounter today as his unorthodox material choices and the resulting inherent vice have caused difficulty in preserving his creations.

The Coes commissioned Chanler to create a mural that reflected the family’s love of the American west. The artist’s response was to create an extraordinary mural that literally surrounded the room’s occupants, rendering his representation of the Wyoming landscape across all fours wall and ceiling. Chanler added depth and movement to his scenes by building up relief and texture with layers of gesso. The surface was then gilded and painted. This gesso layer, while critical to the mural’s appearance, is also the source of its inherent vice. Cracking in the gesso layer has led to paint loss and instability resulting in multiple conservation campaigns over the last decades. In addition to the ongoing conservation treatment, analysis has been conducted on the sky portion. Recent testing has revealed that much of the area above the horizon has been over‐painted and that Chanler’s original clear blue sky survives beneath the overpaint.

Conservators from the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites have diligently maintained the space for decades. Together with Planting Fields Foundation, the team has worked to stabilize the environment, which has been a key step in slowing down degradation. Planting Fields Foundation is currently securing funding to treat the ceiling and sky elements of the mural, with the intent of returning Chanler’s original palette. For more information on this, contact gwouters@plantingfields.org.