60-Second Science

Noninvasive Technique Gauges Art Canvas Health

Researchers have come up with a nondestructive method to analyze the canvas of some works of art to see if they're sturdy enough to travel to be exhibited. Cynthia Graber reports

Iconic works of art get exhibited worldwide. But as those paintings age, they can become too fragile to withstand travel around the globe. The paint can be visually examined to gauge its integrity. But the only way to check the canvas had been to remove a piece destructively.

So a team of researchers in Europe devised a new method for diagnosing the health of old paintings similar to testing blood sugar without using a needle.
The scientists took samples from nearly 200 old canvases or canvas linings from the 19th and 20th centuries. They shined infrared light on the fabric to assess the type of fibers and their relative fragility. With those results as a reference, the scientists then scanned 12 paintings by Salvador Dalí.

Luckily, all 12 are still in stable traveling condition. But they found that the oldest Dalís are starting to weaken. The research is in the journal Analytical Methods. [Marta Oriola et al., Looking beneath Dalí's paint: non-destructive canvas analysis]

The scientists stress that the technique has only been validated for 19th- and 20th-century canvases with no synthetic fibers. But Dalí would have appreciated this marriage of science and art. After all, one of his works is called Homage to Crick and Watson.

—Cynthia Graber

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

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