ORLEANS – Debra Dickinson can tell you there's more to an oil painting than meets the common eye.
As an art conservator, the Wellfleet resident has made a career out of carefully analyzing and treating portraits for their imperfections, down to the slightest details.
So when the Orleans Cultural Council needed help with a portrait of its own, Dickinson spent two years restoring and stabilizing it to mirror its original condition. As a result, an important emblem of Orleans history has been given new life.
Last Friday, the cultural council unveiled the restored portrait of the town's namesake, Louis Philippe II, the Duc d'Orleans, in the Nauset meeting room of town hall. The council raised approximately $4,000 to restore the portrait, which was anonymously donated to the town years earlier.
"For me, it's so deeply rewarding," Dickinson told attendees of the unveiling last week. "Many donors are here, and I really appreciate it. The enthusiasm has been amazing. The whole community made this happen. You all made this happen, and it's terrific."
JoAnna Keeley, the former chair of the cultural council who also serves on the Orleans Cultural District, helped spearhead efforts to restore the portrait, the condition of which was such that Dickinson said it was given to her "in the nick of time."
"You can see the entire portrait was cracked everywhere," she said. "It was like a jigsaw puzzle with these elongated pieces through the entire painting."
The work was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while Keeley said there were also issues getting necessary supplies from France. Those materials were eventually received in July.
Philippe's connection to the town came by way of Isaac Snow. Born in 1758 in what at the time was still Eastham, Snow enlisted at the age of 17 in the Revolutionary War. Jay Stradal, chair of the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans (CHO), said Snow was captured twice during his service in the war.
Stradal said on one occasion, Snow escaped a prisoner of war ship off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal. After making his way to shore, he walked to France, where he learned about the Duc d'Orleans.
"He was very strongly in support of liberty and the cause of freedom, certainly not what the French monarchy believed in those days," Stradal said of Philippe.
The Duc's dedication to the concept of freedom resonated with Snow. After he returned home to Cape Cod, Eastham's north and south parishes decided to split, and Snow successfully lobbied for the newly-formed town to be named Orleans.
Keeley said that years later in the 18th century, an unknown artist painted a portrait of Phillipe. Eventually, the portrait was purchased at an auction in New York and donated anonymously to the town of Orleans as a gift, she said.
The portrait sat in a first floor closet in town hall for many years until the cultural council and the cultural district partnered on an effort to bring a lighted sculpture of Philippe to town. Using a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the organizations commissioned Sandwich artist Michael Magyar to make the metal sculpture, which was donated to the CHO in December.
At the same time, Keeley recalled, the town decided to hang the donated portrait of Philippe in town hall.
"We took a look at this portrait, and we said 'You know, this portrait needs help,'" she said.
Dickinson said the baroque-style painting came to her in "horrible shape." She said the painting had become so dry and brittle over time that it was at risk of popping off the canvas.
"To most people, it's stationary," she said of the painting canvas. "But I look at that and I know it's constantly moving. With humidity and temperature change, that piece of fabric is moving. The delicate paint layer is being stressed all the time, and it eventually cracks."
There are also numerous layers of material that accumulate on older paintings over time that also need to be treated, Dickinson said,
"You have soot. You have grime. You have insect excretion, fly specs on paintings literally burn holes into the paint. I've received paintings that have had thousands of little specs."
Dickinson also had to remove two old linings, one made from rabbit skin glue and another from beeswax, as part of the restoration.
Michael Herman of the select board read a statement from the board's chair, Andrea Reed, who was unavailable to attend the unveiling. Reed, the select board's liaison to the cultural council, thanked the council for its work to restore and reframe the portrait.
"The fruits of your labor are gratefully received for everyone who walks through town hall to appreciate. Well done, cultural council, and thank you."
The portrait will hang outside the Nauset meeting room. But Dickinson said her work isn't completely done. On the back of the portrait is a stamp which she hopes will help her find out who painted the portrait.
"I'm still working on that," she said. "That's part of the detective work involved.
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com