WASHINGTON – Here’s a question art experts at the National Gallery of Art are trying to solve: Are some of the paintings in the noted museum collection by Johannes Vermeer actually works of art? by Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch artist noted for his realistic, detailed depiction of middle-class life?
The two paintings are not obviously fakes. Indeed, a work is considered a masterpiece, but they are unusual in Vermeer’s work: smaller than his other works, and painted on wooden panels instead of canvas.
“And so they look a little bit different from the rest of his work,” said Melanie Gifford, a research conservationist at the National Gallery.
“Girl With the Red Hat” is one of 34 works of art that are almost universally considered genuine Vermeers. The other, “Girl with the Flute,” “is only conservatively attributed to Johannes Vermeer,” the museum’s website says, because it “did not conform to its owner’s standards.”
And yet, “Girl With a Flute” shares stylistic similarities with “Girl With the Red Hat” and other Vermeer paintings. On the other hand, if “Girl With a Flute” isn’t a true Vermeer, perhaps “Girl With the Red Hat” isn’t either.
Dr Gifford said: “There have been doubts about the distribution for many years.
Art experts, aided by a scientist who once designed cameras for rovers, are increasingly leveraging a technique also used to study Mars to help answer questions like these. this.
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned out to be a boon for the arts and sciences. When the National Gallery and other museums are temporarily closed, venerable paintings can be taken down for study without incurring the wrath of frustrated visitors.
John K. Delaney, a senior imaging scientist at the National Gallery, said he and a colleague, Kathryn Dooley, “quietly went in, for six to eight weeks, and photographed the hell of the all of our Vermeers, including those with some question marks. “
Much of Vermeer, who died in 1675 at the age of 43, remains shrouded in mystery; His work was almost forgotten for two centuries until critics rediscovered it in the 1800s and hailed him as a master at using color to capture the gradation of light. , shadows and textures.
“What we are trying to do is establish an understanding of his painting techniques,” Dr. Delaney said. “Are people trying to figure out if this is all Vermeer’s, or is someone else involved in it?”
The National Gallery also owns two oil paintings, such as “The Girl in the Red Hat”, which Vermeer confidently attributed. Those three paintings, and “The Girl with the Flute,” are now back on display in the museum’s west wing, which reopened in May. But the study of the data continues.
In the past, all art curators and conservators had to work was what they could see on the surface of the artwork and anything they could unearth in the archives. historical data. Sometimes, they may remove a paint stain to analyze the layers of the artwork.
X-rays have provided some of the first glimpses of what may lie beneath the visible top layers. Through a technique called X-ray fluorescence, the same high-energy light particles can also be used to identify elements such as zinc, lead and copper found in certain paint pigments. . These elements absorb X-rays and re-emit energy at characteristic wavelengths, a kind of atomic fingerprint.
Dr. Delaney’s expertise, reflectance imaging spectroscopy, is one of the newer methods that take advantage of the fact that different molecules absorb light at different wavelengths. By analyzing the brightness of the colors emitted by something, scientists can often determine what the object is made of. That is useful for geologists studying minerals on the surface of landscapes. The technology helps pharmaceutical companies ensure drug purity, and intelligence experts use similar images taken by satellites and aircraft to find hidden enemy targets.
Dr Delaney, who used to work for a company that designed cameras for the U-2 spy plane, said: “You can distinguish between painted objects and natural objects. plane before joining the National Gallery.
Geologists have also found this to be a useful technique. By flying over an area with sophisticated cameras that collect data at visible and infrared wavelengths, they were able to identify different types of rock. NASA’s Mars rover and Curiosity and Perseverance rover use reflectance-imaging spectroscopy to identify minerals on the red planet.
Marcello Picollo, a researcher at the Nello Carrara Institute for Applied Physics in Florence, Italy, is part of the first team to apply this technique to the study of works of art. Trained as a geologist, he realized that many pigments were essentially crushed minerals. Reflective imaging spectroscopy can also identify organic molecules like those found in insect cones that have been pulverized to produce a deep red pigment.
“It’s a great and powerful technique for investigation,” says Dr. Picollo.
But these camera systems had to be modified to fit the needs of art museums: to study paintings up close and with great precision without glare, which is potentially harmful. .
At the same time that Italian scientists were developing their system, Dr. Delaney began consulting for the National Gallery of Art.
The original devices that Dr. Delaney used could take pictures at several wavelengths, so they were called multi-optical cameras. Over time, devices became more sophisticated, able to distinguish between more wavelengths. They are now described as hyperspectral rather than merely multispectral.
In 2007, the National Gallery hired Dr. Delaney full-time, and he began collaborating with art professionals around the world, including those at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Room Britain’s National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Dr Picollo said: “John was the one who really initiated the widespread use of this technique.
When Dr. Dooley completed her PhD in chemistry in 2010, she was looking for a job that could leverage her skills in the field of spectroscopy. She received a scholarship at the National Gallery.
Dr Dooley, now a research scientist at the museum, said: “I always thought I would be working in industry somewhere, applying spectroscopy to analyze something. “And it just happens when I’m analyzing the artwork, and that’s pretty cool.”
The lab at the National Gallery has a motorized easel that moves the painting in front of the camera, back and forth, up and down. For each point, the camera collects detailed reflection information across multiple wavelengths, generating gigabytes of data during an hour-long scan. The supermicroscope can also be interchanged with an X-ray fluorescence device.
Many of the gallery’s art historians were initially unimpressed when Dr Delaney and Dr Dooley first showed them a graph of light absorption. But they started coming around.
A few years ago, David Alan Brown, curator of Italian and Spanish paintings, asked if these techniques could help answer some of his questions about “Feast of the Gods,” a painting. A 16th-century painting by Giovanni Bellini depicts a mythical setting with Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo, and other Olympian gods at an outdoor party. It was basically repainted by one of Bellini’s students – Tiziano Vecellio, commonly known as Titian, who was perhaps the greatest of the Renaissance painters in Venice.
Titian changed the background, adding a tree-covered mountain that Bellini had painted, and Dr. Brown, now retired, “wanted to know exactly what the forest looked like,” Dr. Delaney said. “Kate found all the trees,” he said. “And then we can get some information about the foliage.”
That results in a color reproduction of the original painting.
“We answered a lot of his questions,” Dr. Dooley said.
What lies below?
Dr. Delaney’s collaboration with the Getty museum includes scanning a super-glass that casts light onto a painting hidden under Rembrandt’s “An Old Man in Military Dress.” Karen Trentelman, head of technical research at Getty, said it had long been known that Rembrandt painted one work on top of another, and that X-rays showed the first painting “completely upside down.” compared to the picture at the top”. .
It’s another portrait, the same size, but not many people know about.
“When you have a hidden Rembrandt, you want to find out what it is,” says Dr. “But of course, you’re not going to shave off the top Rembrandt to achieve it.”
Getty doesn’t own a presbyopia camera, so Dr. Delaney has come to help. “He’s actually going to pack this up and fly to Los Angeles and work with us,” said Dr. “We invite him out here in January and February, when it’s nice in Los Angeles and really miserable in Washington.”
The X-ray fluorescence scan shows the distribution of iron and copper atoms in the first picture, showing a younger man in a robe. Super close-up images show more: no less than four sets of eyes.
Dr Trentelman said: “He seemed to be looking for a place to place his eyes.
Dr. Delaney also helped scan Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises,” possibly the most famous painting in the Getty collection.
The flowers in the painting are currently blue, but in a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh described them as purple. “Can we find evidence of a color change that we think is most likely?” Dr. Trentelman said. “Van Gogh was famous for his use of paints that change color and fade.”
That can tell people what the artwork looks like. “We can do a digital color reproduction of, like, ‘Hey, this is what it might have looked like when it was new,’” Dr. Trentelman said.
But there’s certainly no hidden picture under “Iris,” she said. Instead, it’s a more subtle study of how van Gogh created his paintings, providing information that could help conservators preserve it.
With the help of Dr. Delaney, Getty is purchasing a super-lens camera system, which is expected to launch in the coming months, Dr. Trentelman said.
Back at the National Gallery of Art, the super-reflection and X-ray fluorescence scanning of Vermeer paintings helped identify pigments and provided insights into how Vermeer works.
A wealth of supergiant data can be used to create false-color images, like those used by planetary scientists to pick out subtle details in alien landscapes. planet.
Vermeer’s paintings are renowned for their precise detail – so precise that some have suggested that he uses an optical device called a camera obscura to sketch out precise perspectives – yet the image is Infrared and X-rays also show coarser lines in the layers below.
“In his preparatory phase, when he did the composition, it was pretty quick,” Dr. Dooley said. “And it was pretty sketchy. It’s a bit raw. And it’s been more loosely handled than what I think the public usually thinks of when they think of Vermeer.”
As for the question of who actually painted “The Girl in the Red Hat” and “The Girl with the Flute,” Marjorie E. Wieseman, head of the Nordic painting division of the National Gallery, spoke carefully. It is important that there are no conclusions yet.
“There are some anomalies in the paintings in terms of how they relate to other Vermeer works,” she said. “How much can you justifiably explain, and how much remains curiosity and just something from the left side?”
Dr Gifford said she and other researchers hope to include their findings in a paper next year.
“We are still arguing,” Dr. Gifford said.