Public Release: 

Investigating the techniques of Old Masters

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

Why do the colours in some of Van Gogh's paintings change? How did he mix his paint? The new De Mayerne research programme is investigating molecular changes due to the ageing of paintings, artist's techniques and the effects of previous restorations.

The De Mayerne research programme concentrates on the works of Dutch painters from the 15th to the 20th century, such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh. In the research programme, art historians, chemists and physicists are working together with various museums, including the Van Gogh Museum, the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum. The Tate Gallery in London and the ETH (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich are also participating in the project.

The interdisciplinary cooperation within the research programme is expressed in research into artist's techniques and studio practices. Research into historical sources is combined with analytical research on the surface of the objects. Also the research into ageing processes and the effects of restoration procedures requires an art history contribution in addition to more fundamental chemical and physical research into changes due to the ageing of components in the paint and varnish.

In January 2002, five new projects started within this research programme.

  • One of the projects concerns the paint used by Van Gogh. Some of his paintings suffer from serious discoloration. In Van Gogh's time the first industrial paints were marketed. These suppressed the paints made in the studio. Not only his paintings are being studied but also letters in which he describes his painting technique.
  • Another project is concentrating on the 17th century painter's group in the Orange Room of the Royal Palace Huis ten Bosch. These paintings have been exceptionally well preserved and all previous restorations have been documented.
  • A third project is the reconstruction of oil paints from the 17th and 19th centuries. The imitated paints can serve as reference material for research into aged paint layers.
  • Another research project has shown that lead, always present in older paints, has in many cases led to discoloration, in which the clear lead-white becomes dull. Similar problems are also found with other metals.
  • A fifth project concentrates on cross-sections of paintings. This will provide information about the chemical interaction between the various paint layers as well as information about painters' techniques.

The projects are being carried out by various research institutes, including the Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF), the Canadian Conservation Institute, the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, Leiden University, and various museums including the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis. The Limburg Conservation Institute is also participating in the project.

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