Science is used to reveal masterpiece's true colors

February 13, 2014

Scientists are using powerful analytical and imaging tools to study artworks from all ages, delving deep below the surface to reveal the process and materials used by some of the world's greatest artists.

Northwestern University chemist Richard P. Van Duyne, in collaboration with conservation scientists at the Art Institute of Chicago, has been using a scientific method he discovered nearly four decades ago to investigate masterpieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt.

Van Duyne recently identified the chemical components of paint, now partially faded, used by Renoir in his oil painting "Madame Léon Clapisson." Van Duyne discovered the artist used carmine lake, a brilliant but light-sensitive red pigment, on this colorful canvas. The scientific investigation is the cornerstone of a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Van Duyne will discuss his research on Renoir's painting as well as his studies of Winslow Homer's watercolor "For to be a Farmer's Boy" and Mary Cassatt's pastel "Sketch of Margaret Sloane, Looking Right"at a Feb. 13 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago. The briefing, "Paintings: At and Under the Surface," will be held at 10 a.m. CST in Vevey Room 3 of the Swissôtel Chicago.

Van Duyne also will speak about "Detecting Organic Dyestuffs in Art with Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy" Friday, Feb. 14, at the AAAS meeting. His presentation is part of the symposium "Preserving Our Cultural Heritage: Science in the Service of Art" to be held from 10 to 11:30 a.m. CST in the Acapulco Room of the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

To see what the naked eye cannot see, Van Duyne used surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) to uncover details of Renoir's paint. SERS, discovered by Van Duyne in 1977, is widely recognized as the most sensitive form of spectroscopy capable of identifying molecules.

He is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Chemistry in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Van Duyne and his colleagues' detective work informed the production of a new digital visualization of the painting's original colors by the Art Institute's conservation department. The re-colorized reproduction and the original painting (presented in a case that offers 360-degree views) can be viewed side by side at the exhibition "Renoir's True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery."

Explore further: Northwestern chemist investigates lost reds in Homer painting

More information: The show runs Feb. 12 through April 27 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. More information is available at

Related Stories

Northwestern chemist investigates lost reds in Homer painting

June 11, 2008

More than 30 years ago, when Northwestern University chemist Richard Van Duyne developed a powerful new sensing technique, he never thought he would be using it to learn more about treasures in the Art Institute of Chicago's ...

Capturing the fugitive... in art

April 5, 2011

( -- What do Winslow Homer's For to Be a Farmer's Boy (1887) and Vincent van Gogh's The Bedroom (1889) have in common?

Preserving van Gogh's priceless masterpieces

November 14, 2012

The chrome yellow pigment that renowned post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh favored in priceless masterpieces like Sunflowers, the Yellow House and Wheatfield with Crows is especially sensitive to certain types of ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

Moonlighting molecules: Finding new uses for old enzymes

November 27, 2015

A collaboration between the University of Cambridge and MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca, has led researchers to identify a potentially significant new application for a well-known ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.