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Conservation Science Partnership Thrives, Expands

Center for scientific research in the arts collaborating with Guggenheim, Smart Museum

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February 13, 2014 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- For nearly a decade, Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago have been partners in conservation science, unlocking secrets about many of the museum’s masterpieces -- by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Winslow Homer, George Seurat, Mary Cassatt and others -- and developing new methods and technologies to investigate art.

Last year, a $2.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation established the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), a new national model of interdisciplinary scientific research in the arts. (Read a January 2013 story about the center and past projects.)

The center recently announced its first two conservation science collaborations: with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City to study works by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and with the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago to study an important group of 20th-century bronze sculptures.

Showcasing the types of problems that can benefit from the approach espoused by NU-ACCESS, scientists Richard Van Duyne and Katherine Faber of Northwestern and Francesca Casadio of the Art Institute participated in press briefings and symposia Feb. 13 and 14 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago. (Faber and Casadio are co-directors of NU-ACCESS.)

Also, just a few blocks to the south of the AAAS meeting, the Art Institute has a first-of-its-kind exhibition presenting an in-depth look at Renoir’s painting process and the scientific detective work used to unlock its mysteries. The study conducted by Northwestern and Art Institute scientists of a brilliant red pigment that has faded in Renoir’s oil painting “Madame Léon Clapisson” is the cornerstone of the exhibition (Feb. 12 through April 27).

Paintings: At and Under the Surface” (Feb. 13 press briefing)

• Northwestern chemist Richard Van Duyne spoke to media about his work identifying organic colorants in Renoir’s oil painting “Madame Léon Clapisson,” Winslow Homer’s watercolor “For to be a Farmer’s Boy” and Mary Cassatt’s pastel “Sketch of Margaret Sloane, Looking Right.”

• Katherine Faber (Northwestern) and Francesca Casadio (Art Institute of Chicago) attended the press briefing and were available for questions on the specific projects and techniques of the Northwestern-Art Institute partnership.

Detecting Organic Dyestuffs in Art with Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy” (Feb. 14 presentation)

As part of the symposium “Preserving Our Cultural Heritage: Science in the Service of Art,” Northwestern chemist Richard Van Duyne again spoke about his work identifying organic colorants in Renoir’s oil painting “Madame Léon Clapisson,” Winslow Homer’s watercolor “For to be a Farmer’s Boy” and Mary Cassatt’s pastel “Sketch of Margaret Sloane, Looking Right.” Van Duyne used a powerful technique called surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS), which he discovered in 1977, to uncover details of these works of art.

Reconstructing and Deconstructing Paintings: Innovations At and Below the Surface” (Feb. 14 symposium)

Northwestern’s Katherine Faber and the Art Institute’s Francesca Casadio co-organized the symposium, which was moderated by Martha Tedeschi, deputy director for art and research at the Art Institute. The symposium focused on three specific projects in which advances in analytical and imaging probes have afforded an unprecedented view of complex materials in paintings by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and some of the Old Masters.

“Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery” (art exhibition)

(Feb. 12 through April 27, gallery 226, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago)

This special display offers an in-depth -- and truly 360-degree -- view of both Renoir’s process of painting the Impressionist masterpiece “Madame Léon Clapisson” and the high-tech methods used by Art Institute and Northwestern “detectives” to uncover new information. Their investigation led to discovering that Renoir used carmine lake, a brilliant but light-sensitive red pigment, in this colorful oil painting. The Art Institute’s conservation department produced a new digital visualization of the painting’s original colors. This re-colorized reproduction and the original painting can be viewed side by side, with the original presented in a case that offers 360-degree views.

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