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Restored painting assumes its original glory at mission

Curator of museum calls the result 'overwhelming'


August 20, 2005

Sabino Escamilla fixes a railing at Mission San Luis Rey, where "Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary" will go back on display.
OCEANSIDE – A historic painting is back home at Mission San Luis Rey after a six-month, $20,000 face-lift, the colors restored to the vibrancy with which the artist applied them nearly 130 years ago.

"Overwhelming," is how Bradford Claybourn, curator of the mission museum, described the work performed by conservators at the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego's Balboa Park.

Painted in 1876 by Leon Trousset, "Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary" was removed from the church in January, along with another Trousset painting, "Resurrection of Christ."

The Roman Catholic church at the mission, founded in 1798, is the 18th of California's 21 mission churches and a state historic landmark.

The colors on both paintings had grown murky over the years as their varnish overcoats deteriorated, and the "Assumption" suffered additionally as the canvas sagged in places in its frame.

"Cosmetically it looked very bad," said Betsy Court, chief conservator of paintings at the art conservation center.

She described the overlay as "dark orangey-brown," and the team of four conservators used a number of organic solvents to remove it, one small patch at a time. Then they "infilled" or carefully replaced areas of missing paint.

"Now the real colors show," Court said, and they are protected by a new layer of stable varnish that will not discolor.

Before conservators could even begin restoring the painting they had to remove it from its frame, peel away the original cloth backing, stretch the canvas, straighten the edges and fix numerous small tears.

About $14,000 of the $20,380 cost of the restoration was raised by the El Camino Real Chapter of Questers, and the rest came from a $10,000 conservation grant from the county Board of Supervisors, Claybourn said.

Questers is a national organization dedicated to preserving artifacts and places of historical interest, according to Virginia Brophy of Oceanside, the local chapter's president.

Its members visited the art conservation center on March 24, when the restoration was about half-done.

"They had cleaned a lot of the bad varnish and it was pretty amazing how much more vibrant the colors were," Brophy said.

The Questers will get to see the finished result at a reception Tuesday, and patrons at the Aug. 27 Heritage Ball, an annual fundraiser for the mission, will also get a look. But the public won't see the painting until at least next month, Claybourn said.

The "Assumption" is hanging temporarily in an off-exhibit area of the mission museum complex, along with the "Resurrection," which is awaiting restoration.

"We just received a new estimate for the cost of restoring the second painting, and our chapter will consider it at our next meeting in September," Brophy said Thursday.

She said that to return the "Resurrection" to its original condition would cost $9,000 to $10,000 for repairing and stretching the canvas, and $10,500 and $12,300 for "the aesthetics."

There are no immediate plans to return either painting to the church. They once hung facing each other on opposite walls halfway between the altar and the front doors.

Not much is known about Trousset, who lived from about 1835 to about 1936, according to Tracy Trousset of Hemet, the unofficial family historian. One of the artist's works was purchased by a New Mexico museum for $35,000, she said.

Claybourn would not put a price on either of the mission's Trousset paintings.

"You assume it is hypothetically worth at least what it cost to conserve it, but it isn't something you would put to the test," he said of the "Assumption."

James Steinberg: (619) 542-4569;

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