A special homecoming
When John Christian Malthaner was a teacher at the Young Ladies’ Seminary in the mid-19th Century Moravian community of Bethlehem, he commissioned fellow teacher Gustav Grunewald to paint portraits of himself and his wife Catherine.
The portraits, after hanging for more than a century and a half in the homes of Malthaner’s descendants throughout the United States, have come home to Bethlehem, where they are now part of the permanent art collection of the Moravian Archives.
The portraits, newly cleaned and restored, were presented to the public at a reception at the archives in February by Dr. Paul Peucker, archives director, and Steven Erisoty, the conservator who refurbished the paintings.
Peucker explained the importance of the portraits and their connections to Bethlehem, especially the connection with Moravian music.
Malthaner (1810-1873) was a piano maker who emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1828. He lived first in New York City, where he opened a piano factory and in 1832 married Catherine Schoenheinz (1812-1879). In 1837, the couple moved to Bethlehem. At first, he supported himself and his family as a self-employed craftsman in cabinetry, as well as a music teacher at the seminary and an organist for the Moravian Church.
Within a few years, however, Malthaner was again building pianos, and records show that he sold his first piano to the seminary in 1846. In her research paper “Music, Women, and Pianos in Antebellum Bethlehem,” Jewel Smith wrote that the piano was very popular in the late 1800s, replacing the harpsichord, clavichord and spinet. There was an increasing demand for piano instruction.
By 1855, Smith said the seminary owned nearly 40 pianos, many that had been tuned and repaired by Malthaner. By 1865, it had purchased 20 of his instruments. The principal of the seminary at the time wrote, “We find his pianos equal to the best of others in point of finish and excellency of tone. For service and durability, we find none equal to those of Mr. Malthaner’s.”
When Malthaner moved to Bethlehem, Gustav Grunewald (1805-1878) was a resident of the Moravian community and a professor of drawing and painting at the seminary.
Grunewald, born in Germany, studied at the Dresden Art Academy. He arrived in Pennsylvania in 1831 and was admitted to Bethlehem’s Moravian community in 1833. He went on to gain notoriety as a landscape painter among what became the artists of the Hudson River School.
Sometime between 1837 and 1866, Grunewald painted the portraits of the Malthaners.
When Erisoty was commissioned to restore the paintings, he said he had to deal with several challenges. Demonstrating with “before photos,” he showed that the color of the paintings had become very dark, faces appeared orange, white cloth had yellowed, and there were disturbing cracks on Catherine’s forehead. Worse, there was a sticky substance on the surfaces of both paintings that had attracted pollutants, especially cigarette smoke.
“Someone had rubbed oil on the portraits,” Erisoty said, remarking that it was “an old wives’ tale” that oil would preserve paintings.
“Oil is the binder that mixes with paint, and it binds with itself and binds the paint to it, making it very difficult to remove,” he said.
Erisoty told the audience that he used solvents to remove the oil and pollution that did not harm the paintings and ould be easy for a conservator in the future to work with. Exactly what solvent, he would not specify. It is a trade secret, no doubt.
“In restoration work, every painting is different,” Erisoty had explained earlier. “Very old paintings can be impervious to solvents. Knowing what to use depends on long years of experience.”
The disfiguring cracks on Catherine’s forehead, he said, were caused because Grunewald used paint with too much oil for his first layer and then covered it over with paint with less oil before the bottom layer had completely dried. This caused the first coat of paint to shrivel and crack. The cracks can still be seen, but they are far less prominent.
In a way, it was those cracks that led to the portraits being brought home. In an interview after the public presentation, Catherine Abrams, a Malthaner descendant who donated the portraits to the archives, said that when she noticed the cracks she began to worry about the integrity of the paintings. The artwork had been passed on through generations and had never left the family. Abrams said she grew up with the portraits, which hung in her parents’ home for 50 years.
An art historian who did her master’s thesis on 17th Century American marriage portraits, Abrams had lived with the paintings of the Malthaners in her own home for the past seven years. For three years, the paintings were on the walls of her bedroom.
Abrams and her sister, Anne Malmquist, who lives in California, decided to donate the paintings to the Moravian Archives, where they thought they would be well-preserved.
Referring to the portrait of Catherine Malthaner, Abrams said, “I will miss her.”
Hours: 8 a.m - 4:30 p.m. Monday - Friday (closed Good Friday March 25), Moravian Archives, 41 W. Locust St., Bethlehem. The Moravian Archives is on the north campus of Moravian College, across the street from the Moravian Theological Seminary. Park on the north side of Lot P. Ask for a parking pass. firstname.lastname@example.org 610-866-3255