Category → pigments
So you’d think that making a replica of a Rembrandt might be frowned upon by the art world, but this copy of “An old man in military costume” has full approval of its owners.
In fact, the folks at the Paul Getty Museum in LA, asked their own intern to replicate the masterpiece as well as the hidden painting beneath it.
It seems that there’s a pretty good reason for making the copy, or “mock-up” as the researchers call it.
For years, museum researchers have known that there’s another painting beneath the military portrait. But they’ve had a tough time getting more than just a faint whiff of the image hidden below using standard analytical methods.
Over the past few years, a new technique called scanning macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) has proven itself useful for uncovering hidden paintings on canvases by Van Gogh, Goya and others.
The question is whether MA-XRF would work for Rembrandt’s military portrait. And specifically, whether a portable X-ray device was powerful enough to do the trick or whether the painting should travel to a more a powerful synchrotron X-ray source, such as in Hamburg (DESY) or at Brookhaven National Labs in New York.
It comes down to the fact that museums don’t like shipping valuable and fragile art around the world unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Enter intern Andrea Sartorius (who I momentarily hoped was a descendent of the 17th century Croatian weight-loss fanatic & innovator, Sanctorius Sanctorius. Sadly the names are not quite the same.)
Anyway, Sartorius painted a copy of the original Rembrandt using the same kind of pigments and binder that he would have used, and she included another portrait below the military one.
Then the copy was shipped around the world to be analyzed using X-rays from the various synchrotron sources and from the portable device. Turns out it’s worth the trip to more snazzy X-ray sources if you want to see the hidden painting below. The team argues in this paper that transporting the Rembrandt to a synchrotron facility is actually “useful and relevant.”
The paper’s lead researcher, Matthias Alfred, praised the mock-up: “It is the first time that a painting was reproduced in such an elaborate way for these tests.” It seems that experiments on mock-ups help museum staff decide whether sending expensive art to outside labs for analysis is worth the risk and effort.
And that, my friends, is how a fake Rembrandt can sometimes be a good thing.
Nearly eight thousand years ago in an area that is now called Poland, a prehistoric person skipped dish-duty.
Thanks to this delinquency, researchers in Poland and the UK led by Richard Evershed have been able to analyze the dirty residues on these dishes.
Today the scientists report in Nature that the fatty acid leftovers are Northern Europe’s earliest evidence for cheese-making.
And tomorrow, teenagers everywhere will begin arguing that dirty dishes buried under beds are a gift to future archeologists.
But seriously, archeologists are interested in the onset of cheese-making for several reasons. Continue reading →
Civilian society constantly makes use of aerospace and military inventions:
Can anyone say the Internet? Or transparent braces? (These nearly invisible dental devices are made from a material called polycrystalline alumina, which was initially developed by NASA “to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers,” notes Discovery.com)
Cultural heritage also borrows from NASA: Portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was developed for MARS missions, so that roaming rovers could assess the chemical make-up of rocks on that planet.
Now XRF is a must-have tool for conservation scientists, who want to analyze the chemical composition of art that cannot be transported into a lab, such as a cave painting or Renaissance fresco.
But what about reversing the direction of technology export, so that cultural heritage scientists return the favor by developing new analytical tools for art research that then get delivered to the greater world of science?
This has not happened—until now*. Continue reading →
You don’t really expect a seemingly dry painting to suddenly start oozing streaks of wet paint, seven years after its completion.
So when Otto Piene’s Harvest, which was finished in 1993, began to weep white paint in 2000, owners, conservators and the artist were all rather surprised.
Although Harvest is Piene’s only work to start weeping, the strange liquefying process has happened to dozens of other artworks from contemporary artists as varied as Jonathan Meese and Frank von Hemert, explains Jenny Schulz, a conservator in Cologne, Germany, who’s made it her business to figure out why. “It’s quite a common thing,” she says.
Taking a closer look at several of these paintings, Schulz figured out something that all the weeping paintings had in common: The tears occurred in places on the canvas where the artist has laid down a thick layer of oil paint.
Although the thickly-laid paint seems to dry, it turns out to be unstable and capable of liquefying. But why? It’s not as if applying thick layers of oil paint is a new thing among artists… Yet the weeping painting issue is relatively new, having emerged in the last two decades or so.
What’s changed, Schulz says, is formulation of oil paints. Until recently oil paint was made using linseed oil. But the problem with linseed, she says, is that it has a tendency to yellow over time.
So paint formulators began exchanging linseed oil for sunflower oil, because sunflower oil doesn’t yellow.
The problem is that sunflower oil doesn’t dry as well. That’s because the oil contains fewer reactive double bonds, which are required to form a permanently dried paint complex, Schulz says.
Thick layers of the sunflower oil paint may seem to dry, but they are unstable. Subjected to changes in temperature and humidity or even the jostling that occurs during transport, these layers can collapse, releasing component parts as a gooey tear running as fast as 2 centimeters per month. Continue reading →
Fashion trends come and go but one thing stays the same: Kids and parents often don’t see eye-to-eye on style.
Even in 17th-century Amsterdam.
Flinck was a pupil of Rembrandt, but he had more commercial success than his teacher.
Case in point: When Amsterdam’s new town hall was built in the mid 1600s, it featured several Flinck works but only one by Rembrandt, and this lone Rembrandt painting was removed after a year, van Eikema Hommes says.
Flinck’s success was probably due to his strong familial connections to Amsterdam’s wealthy Mennonite community, who became his regular patrons. And therein lies the interesting historical fashion-friction.
It turns out that Amsterdam’s Mennonite community favored solemn, dark outfits. Meanwhile 17th-century cool kids wore colorful tights. (Much as modern-day hipsters opt for brightly colored stockings…)
In fact, some members of the Mennonite congregation would strike out against members who wore less conservative, fashionable clothing—clothing that the Mennonites considered indecent, van Eikema Hommes explains.
Against this cultural backdrop, Flinck was asked to paint a portrait of his young Mennonite nephew Dirck. If you look at the final version of the portrait from 1636, the nephew looks pretty much like a conservative young Mennonite.
But looks can be deceiving. Continue reading →
Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF
I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room.
If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF):
When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci.
They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint.
They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense.
And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms.
Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Continue reading →
It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics.
Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves.
The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists.
Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago… a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.)
This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. Continue reading →
The Sunflower still-life series is possibly Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. Unfortunately the warm yellow hues that make the paintings memorable come from pigments that don’t have a long life-expectancy.
During the 19th century, chrome yellow pigments came in to fashion among painters and then quickly went out again, as artists realized that the vibrant yellow color was unstable and would lose its vibrancy when exposed to light.
For example, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both steered clear of the chrome yellow pigments. But van Gogh threw caution to the wind and continued to use chrome yellow until his suicide in 1890—a tragic hint, perhaps, of his own instability and imminent breakdown.
This week, conservation scientists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been taking a closer look at chrome yellow pigments in Vase with Sunflower, and a few other paintings, to learn more about the degradation problem.
Continue reading →
This blog devotes a lot of digital real-estate to cool experiments on art and artifacts that are non-invasive, or at least minimally so.
So I’ve got to admit that I was not particularly overwhelmed by the breathless reports last week in a myriad of media about a project to drill 14 holes into a Vasari painting in order to search for a possibly hidden da Vinci below.
The articles were subsequent to a press release by National Geographic on March 12, which was presumably trying to raise interest in a documentary about the project airing a few days later (March 18).
Yesterday the well-respected Art-Info published an interesting take-down of the drilling project, entitled “The Search for the Lost Da Vinci Fresco: Serious Science or Irresponsible Hype?”
The piece pointed to a protest-petition against the project signed by 530 members of the museum community, including high-profile curators at the Met and the Louvre.
According to the Art-Info article, none of these critical folks got face-time in the National Geographic Channel documentary. This is how the writer Kate Deimling put it:
- “”Finding the Lost Da Vinci,” which aired on the National Geographic Channel on March 18, certainly looked like an infomercial for the project. The program’s narrator describes opposition to the drilling as a “media feeding frenzy” and an “attack from the press,” but none of the experts opposed to it is interviewed or even mentioned by name. Instead, scientists in lab coats decry the opposition to their work and are then seen boring holes into the painting while dramatic music plays.”
The Art-Info piece also voices criticism from the conservation science community, namely that the pigments detected by the drilling project might be from brick instead of paint.
Another criticism is that non-invasive analytical equipment (such as newer radar technologies) should be used instead of destructive drilling.
In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish invaders, who burned libraries and destroyed most of the manuscripts pertaining to Aztec history, religious rituals and economy.
The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of just two dozen or so Aztec texts to survive the Spanish invasion.
It’s also just one of just six screenfold books that were penned before Cortez started his conquest of Mexico’s indigenous people.
So suffice to say that it’s a pretty exceptional record of the pre-Spanish Mesoamerican world.
This codex is called a screenfold book because Aztec scholars would literally twist and fold the 22-page, double-sided document to cross-reference a particular date to two calendar cycles: the yearly cycle of 365 days and the sacred cycle of 260 days (called tonalpohualli).
Joanna Ostapkowicz, a curator at the World Museum in Liverpool, which hosts Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, explains it in this way:
“In the hands of ritual practitioners and other high-ranking individuals, the codex became a guide for people’s actions. The screenfold’s internal reading structure is right to left and is determined by the number-and-sign sets of the calendar: how the images and symbols cross-referenced each other was then interpreted by the reader, who was well versed in the significance of the various icons. Although an object of great respect, the codex was also a tactile, malleable reference tool: a user could consult both sides simultaneously by folding parts of the codex onto itself. Reading it offered guidance on appropriate days to travel, to celebrate a deity’s beneficence with sacrifices, to plant crops or to name a child.”