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Molecular Analysis Resurrects Old Artworks

Analysis of great art at the molecular level can show restorers the original colors of the painting when the artist finished the last brushstroke. Cynthia Graber reports 

Imagine finding a new painting by Renoir. In a way, Northwestern University chemist Richard Van Duyne did just that—by revealing the original colors of what is now the faded remains of the original Madame Léon Clapisson. He showed what it currently looks like at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

 “Somewhere near the edges where the frame was surrounding it, it protected the painting a bit from fading. And so we analyze what the molecules were under the frame to tell us what they should be now.”

Van Duyne is a pioneer in the analysis of the molecular composition of materials. In this case he identified a red paint called carmine lake that was known to fade. He then showed “a re-colorized version of what we imagine the painting was, based on the molecular information provided by this surface enhanced ramen spectroscopy.”

The new image is much richer, the reds more vibrant, and the woman in the painting pops out with greater depth.

“Molecular analysis of paintings, that’s really what’s new. There’ve been many ways to analyze the inorganic content of paintings and the elemental composition, brilliant methods, and now we add molecular resolution to the whole enterprise.”

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
 

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