For most of us, the closest we'll ever get to Pablo Picasso's masterpiece The Blue Room or a group of Georges Braque's mid-career paintings is by visiting The Phillips Collection, a modern art museum in Washington, D.C.
Imagine being fortunate enough to get to study them up close, examining the details of every paint stroke applied to the canvases -- right down to each nuance of pigment color and its quality -- to gain knowledge about artists' preferred materials and techniques.
Then add a team of art scholars and scientists who can provide historical details or even help you to "see" beneath the painting to reveal anything hidden or painted over on its canvas and you will have a sense of the rich collaborations that some museum professionals enjoy every day.
During the AVS 61st International Symposium & Exhibition, being held Nov. 9-14, 2014, in Baltimore, Md, Patricia Favero, an art conservator at The Phillips Collection, will explain how collaborating with art scholars and scientists aids her explorations of great works of art.
"Art scholars are experts about an artist's life, including knowledge of important cultural and historical contexts and available documentation," said Favero. "If I find something of interest on a painting, an art historian or curator often knows of a reference that can provide an appreciation of that feature's significance within the artist's oeuvre."
Insight into an artist's process -- the way he or she conceived the composition and applied paint to the canvas -- can be gained by looking closely at the work and using relatively simple imaging techniques such as X-radiography and infrared reflectography. "But this usually raises more questions than it answers," she noted.
This is where scientists come in with nondestructive analytical techniques such as X-ray fluorescence intensity mapping and spectral reflectance imaging, as well as elemental and molecular analysis of microscopic samples.
An art conservator's job involves using details revealed by the scientists' analysis to make sense of it and how it relates to the artist's work.
In terms of surprises revealed, while studying Picasso's The Blue Room, "collaboration with scientists was absolutely necessary to get the best possible image of a hidden portrait on the canvas beneath it," said Favero. "The particular variety of pigments used for the picture we see today and in the 'hidden' portrait are the same, which gives us a good amount of confidence in saying that Picasso painted over one of his own pictures."
Another surprise was revealed when scientists analyzed green paint samples from works in The Phillips Collection painted by Georges Braque in 1944: the pigment mixtures -- including fillers and extenders -- are pretty much identical. Thanks to this finding, Favero was able to conclude that Braque used the same green on the two paintings -- quite possibly a shade he mixed up in one of the many tin cans littering his studio.
"The appearance of the green paint on each picture, however, is quite different," she explained. "On one, it's very matte and opaque, while on the other it's glossy and translucent. Further analysis showed that Braque mixed natural resin and beeswax into the glossy and translucent paint to modify its properties."
From Favero's perspective, this type of collaboration between conservators, art scholars, and scientists has become an essential part of studying art and cultural heritage.
"A conservator's intimate relationship with objects complements the art scholar's expert historical knowledge, while specific material questions answered through scientific analysis adds to the overall understanding of an artist or culture and their work," she added. "The value of nondestructive investigations to the study of works of art also can't be overstated."
Materials provided by AVS: Science & Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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