Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery

The key thing people often remark on when they visit the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) is its size.  (They’ve been “walking for days” they tell me.  They need a sandwich…or a nap.) The sheer scope of this major American museum can be daunting, which is one of the reasons I am drawn to the institution’s recent move to mount smaller, one-room exhibitions on single paintings.  These exhibitions serve to focus museumgoers’ attention, and to foster in-depth engagement and concentration on the specificity of an artwork. These exhibitions energize the collection and allow audiences to approach an individual work more in the manner of a historian, curator or conservator.  Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery is one such exhibition, focusing exclusively on Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s oil panting Madame Leon Clapisson (1883).  The innovative show seeks to bring the science of conservation into the Art Institute gallery space.  I recently sat down with Kelly Keegan, Assistant Paintings Conservator, and her colleague Federica Pozzi, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Conservation Science, to talk about the development of the exhibition.

Examination of Renoir Conservators and scientists use a high-power microscope and X-rays to examine the pigment particles and individual brushstrokes of Renoir’s Madame Léon Clapisson, 1883. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.

Keegan explained that the show emerged as a demonstration of the work that has been underway as part of the Getty Foundation Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI.)  In 2009 the Foundation invited the Art Institute and eight other museums to participate in the venture, which “aims to create new platforms for digital publications that provide in-depth curatorial research and conservation science alongside richly illustrated content.”   OSCI records will eventually be open source and include art historical and technical information overlaid with detailed catalog images.  The ambitious project seeks to bring an extraordinary level of scholarship to general audiences.  The Art Institute has been undertaking new photography, conservation, and research on the works in its collection to inform the OSCI project.  “It’s a wonderful opportunity…These classic works are on public display all the time,” noted Keegan.  “Some of them have never been this closely examined by conservation scientists, ever.”    It was in creating the OSCI records for the museum’s Renoir works that the conservation department uncovered the “mystery” at the core of the exhibition: when Madame Leon Clapisson was unframed, it was ringed in red where the paint had been protected.  It seems the painting had previously included a great deal of intense, vibrant red pigment.

Working with the museum as part of the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, scientist Federica Pozzi undertook an examination of the painting.  She and her Northwestern colleagues utilized surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy to detect and identify single molecules in a paint sample.  Spectroscopy allows scientists to analyze light precisely by wavelength. Their work revealed that Renoir used carmine lake, a red pigment that is typically derived from cochineal insects. (“The pigment options were very limited in the 19th century,” she notes, apologizing a bit on Renoir’s behalf.) Pozzi described the pigment as generating a “fugitive color” which fades in light exposure as the organic colorant is unstable. The team’s findings were presented in February to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and will be published in the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy.

As conservator, Kelly Keegan was then able to take these scientific findings and painstakingly recreate a digital image of how the painting most likely would have appeared in 1883. The resulting exhibition came together quite quickly. In a bold installation, the original work is displayed in 360 degrees so that patrons can view the original red pigmentation apparent on the paintings edge as well as the painting’s frame and canvas backing.  Keegan’s digital recreation, which includes Renoir’s lively coloring, is showcased actual-size on the wall, perched within Renoir’s original frame.   Educational materials include physical examples of Renoir’s pigments, as well as x-rays, and images of the spectroscopy process.  An interactive of the complete OSCI record provides even further analysis and detail of the conservation department’s work.  Viewing the show, I am floored by the scope of the OSCI project, particuarly when I consider that the museum is undertaking this level of inquiry for each of the works that will be featured in the digital catalog.

Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery tells an intriguing story of conservation work and delves into science in a way that is much more than cursory. Both Pozzi and Keegan emphasize the communications challenge involved in creating an exhibition that would have appeal to the scientific community as well as visitors simply looking to see the impressionist masters.   “You have re-learn to communicate, to explain things that are typically understood within your field…to not use the shorthand with any audience,” Keegan notes.  As those who typically work behind-the-scenes, part of their aim “was to translate the experience we have in the museum with our colleagues.”  It is their hope that the show communicates both the depth of the research and technology inherent to conservation science and the joy of discovery that accompanies this work.

Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery was overseen by Francesca Casadio, Art Institute of Chicago Head Conservation Scientist and Frank Zuccari, Director of Conservation.  The show will be on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 27.