The Science of Art | Arts & Culture

The Science of Art

The Science of Art

A video still from Rebekah Modrak's ArtPrize video piece.

By Dana Budzaj

Researchers at Detroit Institute of Arts and the University of Michigan have collaborated through scientific analysis of artists’ materials to solve the mysteries surrounding works of art. The exhibit at the DIA, “Fakes, Forgeries and Mysteries” gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the discoveries that have uncovered mistakes regarding artist attribution, authenticity and age of works in the collection.

Open through April 10, the exhibit examines 60 works of art from diverse cultures through three categories: fakes (copies and duplicates), forgeries (impostors created intentionally to deceive), and mysteries. Visitors are offered a peek into the research that occurs at the DIA with interactive activities and opportunities to test their own art knowledge and research abilities. Exhibit information and details are available here.

“This exhibit is the first of its kind at the DIA,” said Cathy Selvius DeRoo, U-M alum and research scientist at the DIA. “The idea of hosting a fakes and forgeries exhibition featuring objects from the DIA collections was the brainchild of DIA Director Graham Beal and European Paintings Curator Salvador Salort-Pons.”

Selvuis DeRoo added that museum visitors have been captivated by the detective work featured in solving art-related mysteries.

The DIA houses more than 60,000 pieces, with roughly 5,000 on display at any given time.  In the 125-year collecting history of the DIA, questionable pieces have found their way into the collections and prompted museum staff to investigate their authenticity.

The process of determining whether the art is real or fake has been compared to crime scene forensics. The art work is subject to a process that takes an in-depth look at the accompanying documentation and the history of ownership, as much as the materials of the art itself.

Typically questions arise when there is inconsistency in the origin of the art, said Selvius DeRoo. “A piece may have been donated to the museum with scanty documentation of its provenance, leaving the curator, conservator and scientist with an investigation on their hands,” she said. On occasion the origin of a forged artwork is fabricated to add the appearance of legitimacy, noted Selvius DeRoo.

Other scenarios that raise questions include instances where an artist’s style has adapted or involve works where students create, or recreate, art in the style of leading artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt or Picasso.

For the exhibit, Selvuis DeRoo worked closely with John Mansfield of the U-M Electron Microbeam Analysis Laboratory to piece together the science aspects of the investigation with the historical knowledge and background of three paintings in question.

Science offers data that can be used to determine the composition of paints, metals, and other materials used in the art. While the DIA has its own in-house research lab, its partnership with U-M provides several key pieces of equipment for testing the materials. Researchers use these tools to complete an elemental analysis and structural analysis of the art materials sampled from the works at the micrometer (a millionth of a meter, or 1/100th of the thickness of a human hair) length scale.

“The scanning electron microscope or SEM as it is know uses an electron beam to excite atoms in the sample, these atoms then give off X-rays, the energies of which tell us the chemistry of the material,” said John Mansfield, U-M associate research scientist and associate director of the electron microbeam analysis laboratory.

This analytical technique, known as X-ray energy-dispersive spectrometry (XEDS), allows researchers to observe and analyze the elements in regions of the samples that are as small as one human hair.

“Once the elements have been determined, the conservation scientist can identify the phases present in the paint pigments and then determine if the those particular composition combinations existed in the period when the art is thought to have been created,” said Mansfield.

Even if the science findings and the historical facts match up, a work still can be in question, as was the case of one unnamed painting in the exhibit.

“The signature on the piece read Claude Monet and the scientific findings showed that its paint composition was consistent with the time-period of Monet’s work,” said Mansfield. “However, it was the investigative detective skills of the DIA curator that uncovered the signature on the painting was a forgery. The painting was originally created by Sir Alfred East, a 19th century British painter.” (see photo above)

Regardless of whether a work of art is an original or a fake, one thing is certain: Art will continue to raise future questions with experts.

“As the research techniques and technologies improve, conservation scientists will become even better equipped to solve the art mysteries,” said Selvius DeRoo. “This exhibition provides a window into the process and hopefully will give art museum visitors greater understanding of the important contributions of science to the arts.”

The collaboration between DIA and U-M is a partnership that both institutions hope will grow through future projects and work to protect and preserve important cultural heritage.

Dana Budzaj is a freelance writer for Montage.