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Conservation Science Partnership Thrives, Expands

Scientists in Northwestern-Art Institute partnership present research at AAAS meeting

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. 

Katherine FaberThe 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 presented their findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago. (Faber and Casadio are co-directors of NU-ACCESS.)

Faber, Walter P. Murphy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, co-organized the symposium, “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Paintings: Innovations At and Below the Surface.” 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.

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. “Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery” offers an in-depth 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. Feb. 12 through April 27.