Study in Scarlet Why Was There No Color in the Sky of a Winslow Homer Painting? Art Institute Detectives Crack This and Other Mysteries

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Byline: Marni Pyke Daily Herald Staff Writer

From stormy seas in cold blues and grays to warm sunsets in vibrant oranges and reds, 19th-century American artist Winslow Homer's paintings simply breathe color.

So why, wondered the curator of an upcoming Homer exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, did his 1887 painting "For to be a Farmer's Boy" display such a white sky?

To answer that and other enigmas, the Institute turns to its art history detectives.

Using science, technology and instinct - plus the brains and resources of Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University - the coalition of scholars unravels puzzles from the past.

They've sleuthed out the mysterious alloys used in Picasso sculptures, laid bare the secret concealed in a 2,000-year-old Zhou Dynasty dagger-ax, and uncovered the hand of Christ concealed beneath brush strokes in a work by Renaissance artist Jean Hey.

"It's like a detective trying to find a culprit amongst the suspects," Art Institute conservation scientist Francesca Casadio said.

The latest eureka moment involves the realization that certain bland backdrops to Homer paintings aren't an oversight by the iconic artist. Rather it's the failure of the pigment to outlast time.

Similar breakthroughs are happening all the time at the Institute, offering insight into the minds of artists, long dead, and the societies they lived in.

The clues are there, experts say. It's just knowing where to look.

The fugitive pigment

Call it the case of the faded reds.

Homer first gained notice for his realistic portrayals of Civil War battles. Later, his complex depictions of nature established him as one of the country's pre-eminent artists at a time when America was trying to establish its voice in a world dominated by European art.

In preparation for a February show, "The Color of Light," Art Institute conservators began examining the pigments in Homer watercolors.

"When we study the watercolors chronologically, we see certain patterns emerge," paper conservator Kristi Dahm said on a tour of the Institute.

For example, studies of "After the Hurricane," an 1899 painting crafted in the Caribbean, revealed Homer's first use of an emerald pigment made of copper and arsenic.

This type of discovery helps narrow down a timeframe for undated works.

Gradually scholars started homing in on "fugitive pigments" Homer used - colors that have faded over time.

"Where did he use those pigments, and how have those pictures changed?" Dahm asked. "And, if we can determine what they looked like originally, what can we learn about the content - is there some meaning lost?"

So when the exhibit curator mentioned how odd it was that Homer left the sky blank in "Farmer's Boy," Dahm and other researchers started looking at the canvas more closely with high-powered microscopes, ultraviolet lamps and spectroscopy. The latter uses light beams that interact with the artwork, giving a fingerprint of the compounds it contains, such as the ingredients in a particular pigment.

The investigation turned up tiny red and yellow particles in Homer's white sky.

"I was able to tell my curator this sky was orange. This is a sunset," Dahm said.

Homer likely was influenced by European paintings of peasants returning home after a day of laboring in the fields.

"He was trying to make an American version of this iconic European image," Dahm said.

Now curators hope to create their own digital version of "Farmer's Boy" that replicates the red pigment to be used an educational tool for the exhibit. …