Friday, November 17, 2017

Bugs, craters and other tiny secrets that hide the works of art in museums

In the eyes of visitors, paintings in a gallery can look impeccable. But the reality is very different from close: Conservatives have found from grasshoppers in Van Gogh paintings to tiny holes in works by Rembrandt.

When visitors admire the impressive works of art exhibited in a museum, they rarely notice possible failures. Absorbed by the content, they do not have, in general, the knowledge necessary to look for small defects as a result of time or the author's brush. And even if they had them, they could not detect them with the naked eye ...

Microscopes and other sophisticated equipment allow professionals who work in the laboratories of conservation and restoration of the galleries to detect in the canvases details that are not visible to the naked eye. From bugs embedded in landscapes as a kind of proof that they were alive, to tiny craters produced by chemical reactions, lenses and scientific tools can reveal the presence of secrets as surprising as minuscule.

An unexpected inhabitant of the olive grove

Although many paintings hide incredible details -such as the drawings found under the paintings of artists such as Picasso-, the canvas of 'Los olivos' by Vincent van Gogh harbors an intruder totally alien to the world of painting.

The director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where the painting was being studied, found the remains of a grasshopper that had been embedded in a corner of the work for 128 years, since its creation in 1889. The observation happened coincidentally while the expert studied painting.

The painting 'Los Olivos' by Vincent van Gogh | Wikimedia I Nelson-Atkins Art Museum

Although it may seem surprising, the truth is that the discovery has a simple explanation. Van Gogh liked to paint outdoors, as he claimed in many of his letters, so the insect could fall into the painting while he handled the brushes. However, the bug did not die asphyxiated in the painting, but was already dead, as evidenced by the absence of signs of movement around his small corpse.

The bug escaped Van Gogh, who already knew the consequences of working in the field. In a letter sent to his brother in 1885 he told how he had to collect a hundred flies lodged in four of his canvases, in addition to dust, grains of sand and blades of grass.

The corpse of the bug has remained in the painting for over a century without anyone seeing it | Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

When chemistry makes its own

But beyond the small natural intruders that ended up embedded in the paintings of Van Gogh, other findings are a bit more difficult to explain. When the conservative Petria Noble examined under the microscope the painting 'Anatomy lessons of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' by Rembrandt in 1996, she was intrigued to discover tiny craters scattered on the surface of the work, dating from 1632.

The expert, in charge of cleaning the canvas in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, got in touch with a physicist to solve the enigma. Together they carried out an investigation that changed the way of understanding the aging of the paintings: searching the archives they found a 1978 report whose authors suggested that those holes could be due to small gas bubbles.

The painting 'Anatomy Lessons by Dr. Nicolaes Tulp' was the first group portrait painted by Rembrandt | Wikimedia

Some craters contain a whitish and translucent material, but it is not about gases or insect eggs, as the scholars had pointed out. According to the results of Noble's analysis - now director of conservation at the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam - and his scientific colleagues, the strange substance resembles the soap that Rembrandt could use to wash his hands.

Far from being a cosmetic, these metallic soaps come from the chemical reactions produced for centuries between the fatty acids and the lead ions of the layers located just below the surface of the work. Their formation can cause serious damage to the paintings, such as the appearance of bark or the detachment of the paint sheets.

Fortunately for lovers of art and painting, along with the tools to detect the smallest flaws, conservation experts and scientists develop increasingly better techniques to treat them and get us to admire great masterpieces in the halls of museums for many years plus.

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