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Henry J. Soulen's (1888-1965) Mural

"We Shall Triumph"

Media, Technique, and Deterioration of
Henry J. Soulen's (1888-1965) Mural

In December 2011, the U.S. Army Center of Military History acquired a painting by Henry J. Soulen, an American artist and illustrator of the so-called golden age of American illustration, 1895–1945. This large, wall-mounted mural painting measuring 84 1/2" by 181," actually is a series of four wooden panels covered by dense, woven fabric, prepared with a heavy ground. The emulsion painting was commissioned in 1944 for the Valley Forge Army Hospital near Philadelphia, where Soulen worked as an art teacher during World War II.

This figurative landscape painting depicts George Washington kneeling, presumably at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778. Soulen worked with a variety of media but, unlike many fellow illustrators of his era who worked solely in black and white, Soulen's palette was colorful, bright, and intense. His style was loose, with visible brushstrokes and, sometimes, heavy impasto. The muted, pastel-tone paint appears very matte, almost milky. At first glance, the media does not seem fully saturated, but instrumental analysis indicates that the primary media is oil-based. The analysis also diagnosed that both the ground and media are cohesively bound with animal hide glue. This and the lack of a varnish layer, perhaps due to a botched restoration attempt, may explain the milky appearance.

Many variables have contributed to the mural's deterioration. Some relate to the painting's size, its travels, and its long-term exhibition in the variable conditions of the lobby at Valley Forge Army Hospital. Other factors include the composite structure of paint, on canvas, glued to wooden boards. The rigid boards helped to sustain the structural integrity of the painted surface when it was moved after the Hospital closed in 1975, but its exposure to fluctuating temperatures and relative humidity undoubtedly is to blame for the varied and large number of cracks to the paint and ground layers. These disparate and thick layers of paint and ground on a rough fabric surface have reacted differently to the changing climates in which the painting has lived. This physical movement of the various layers set up a mechanism of stresses and strains, shrinking and swelling, that resulted in cracking, cupping, flaking and its vulnerability to surface loss. Surface damage appears to have been exacerbated by well-meaning but unprofessional cleaning in the past.

Today, the mural is part of the Army Art Collection, which is preserved at the Army's Museum Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, which has a well-controlled and steady environment that will halt further deterioration.

Henry J. Soulen Mural

The painting "We Shall Triumph" by Henry J. Soulen was commissioned in 1944 for the Valley Forge Army Hospital near Philadelphia.

Detailed view of restoration challenges

Detailed view of restoration challenges


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