The Art Detectives: Science Brings a New Perspective to the Study of Art

By Weisburd, Stefi | Science News, April 23, 1988 | Go to article overview

The Art Detectives: Science Brings a New Perspective to the Study of Art


Weisburd, Stefi, Science News


The Art Detectives

Art historians and curators traditionally have sketched out the histories of artworks by scrutinizing styles and techniques and by poring over letters, diaries, receipts and other documents. But with increasing frequency many are also finding that techniques used by chemists, physicists, biologists and geologists can add revealing shadings to their research palette. A wide spectrum of scientific methods -- from electron microscopy to carbon-14 dating, from isotope analysis to biologic staining -- is helping the art world detect forgeries, discover lost works and better preserve paintings and other art forms.

"There's a trend among art historians now, especially in Europe, to work in collaboration with scientists," says chemist Barbara Berrie at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Scientists help to trace the technical evolution of individual artists, to see how groups of artists influenced one another and to unearth the origin of stones, ores and pigments that individual masters formed into sculptures, pots, plaques and paints.

"To describe an artist's style only in terms of the shapes or draftsmanship of a painting is to miss one of the most important ingredients," says art historian Thomas F. Mathews at New York University. "Artists differ from one another not only in how they draw noses and ears but in the choices they're making in the pigments that shade these in. Chemical techniques [that identify the type and quality of pigments] give you a very immediate sense of knowing wht the artist was doing. It's like looking over his shoulder and seeing what he's putting on layer by layer."

In addition to helping curators understand where and how artworks were made in the past, scientists help them preserve these works for the future. Considrable work has gone into studying the effects of light, humidity, heat, oxygen and air pollutants on works of art. In a collaborative effort with two other art conservation institutes, researchers at the smithsonian Institution's Conservation and Analytical Laboratory (CAL) in Suitland, Md., are investigating the effects of fumigants -- which are used extensively in museums -- on dyes, pigments, resins waxes, metals and other materials. And at the Mellon Institute Research Center on the Materials of the Artist and the Conservator in Pittsburgh, Robert L. Feller and his colleagues have developed an improved protective varnish for coating paintings and have studied the phenomenon of fading. Some of Feller's work prompted curators at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art to cover the museum's entire skylighting system with ultraviolet filters to prevent works from deteriorating.

Archaeological and historic artifacts also benefit from scientific analysis. Two years ago, when curators at the Smithsoian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., wanted to restore the Wright 1903 Flyer -- the first plane successfully flown by the Wright Brothers -- they engaged metallurgists, chemists and other researchers from a number of Smithsonian labs to document the plane's condition and composition, to identify original parts and to recommend treatments. Scientists at the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C., were even asked to take X-rays of the threads on the plane's connecting rods so that conservators would know which way to turn them when they disassembled the plane.

Science has been an important partner in the study and restoration of paintings, and it continues to help decipher the technology of making bronzes, ceramics and other objects. But until recently there was one form of art it had not touched: illustrations found in medieval manuscripts.

"Up to this point no one was quite certain the [direct] chemical analysis would yield any important information," notes Mary Virginia Irna, a chemist at the College of New Rochelle (N.Y.) who works with art historian Mathews. "What people had been relying on with respect to manuscripts was what was written about them [in historical texts] -- that's secondary information. …

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