Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2019 (May 2019)

Art and Science


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May 2019

[Sp20] Analyzing a Painting with X-Rays
Photo by: Todd Anderbyrne.

Chemistry major Sarah Farr’19 takes a shot at Venus at the Forge of Vulcan with a handheld X-Ray fluorescence analyzer in the Wright Museum of Art in April.

The tool measures metal concentration, which provides information about the painting’s age through pigment composition. Farr was enrolled in an Instrumental Analysis of Art and Artifacts class, a chemistry course taught by Kristin Labby, which collaborated with Italian Renaissance Painting, a class taught by David Boffa. Students learned to appreciate the overlap of art and science when the classes worked together on multiple activities this spring, such as making paint from scratch using pigment and binders. The metal analysis activity took place over two days. First, students researched the history of the painting, generated their research questions, and selected areas of the painting to analyze. On the second day, students had the chance to use the handheld XRF instrument.

“While we, fortunately, did not reveal any major fakes or forgeries within the collection, we gathered valuable information that mostly confirms the attributions of the paintings we analyzed,” says Labby. “For example we identified that the School of Cranach’s Adoration of the Magi was painted on a lead white ground [material], consistent for its attributed time period. Also, it was exciting to confirm that the star is indeed real gold!” Venus at the Forge of Vulcan, a School of Jan Brueghel and Hendrick van Balen Dutch oil painting from the 18th century, is in the Wright Museum’s permanent collection.

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