What happens when you combine detective skills with art history and then add a good chunk of science?
You unlock new information about some of history’s most renowned painters and a method to date and authenticate their works.
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For hundreds of years, until the 20th century, there was one type of white paint that reigned supreme in the world. It was called “lead white” and artists were drawn to its peculiar buttery texture and concealment power.
Today, a group of scientists have developed a method to study the lead in “white lead”.
Paolo D’Imporzano of the Free University and his colleagues in Amsterdam studied samples of 77 Dutch paintings from 1588 to 1700. This includes works by Rembrandt and Rubens, and the painting by Gerard ter Borch, titled Godard van Reede.
Using a technique called lead isotope analysis, they discovered that changes in lead chemistry reflected changes in history.
For example, a notable change in the lead white of Dutch paintings in the 1640s coincided with the English Civil War.
“We know the war required a lot of lead. The Civil War disrupted or altered the lead supply… and that’s what we see in pigments,” D’Imporzano said.
Clues like these helped the team conclude that the masterpiece Cimon in Pero, painted by Willem Drost, Rembrandt’s pupil, may not have been painted during his stay in Venice, as previously thought.
“The isotopic signature of this painting is really similar to one of the paintings from a Rembrandt workshop around the same time, so the painting is most likely from his period in Amsterdam,” D’Imporzano said.
The findings of D’Imporzano and his colleagues have been published in the journal Scientists progress. And as part of their work, they have created an international database of lead isotopes in lead white, which will help shape our collective understanding of the history of this paint.
Future use cases may include assigning contested paintings to the right artist, as well as understanding how artists worked and traveled across Europe in the 17th century.
“It’s really a kind of detective story that doesn’t need a single Sherlock Holmes, but a team with very different expertise – the historian, the historian of economics, the historian of ‘art, the researcher, “says Francesca Casadio, a Ph.D. chemist at the Institute of the Arts in Chicago.
“To think that 17th century Dutch paintings can excite new chemical researchers is heartwarming because it really shows the ingenuity you need to be an artist and a scientist. And that’s the bright side of be a human. “