Category → portable equipment
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.
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 →
I love you.
I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll.
It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter:
“Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?”
What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” 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.
A great example of this was recently unearthed by University of Delft researcher, Margriet van Eikema Hommes, when she took a closer look at paintings by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck.
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 →
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
Continue reading →
Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it.
Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks.
In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.)
For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi.
Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick.
That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors.
Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device.
With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.)
Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye.
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:
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.