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Materials Science Research Lecture

Wednesday, March 4, 2020
4:00pm to 5:00pm
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Spalding Laboratory 106 (Hartley Memorial Seminar Room)
Things Fall Apart: Materials Failures in Paul Cezanne's and Edvard Munch's Masterpieces
Jennifer Mass, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science, Bard Graduate Center,


The new painting materials used by the Impressionists, Fauvists, and Expressionists were critical components of their break with traditional modes of representation. These artists heavily exploited the synthetic organic and inorganic pigments that were newly available as a result of the industrial revolution. However, the bright and novel hues that made their way onto these artists' palettes (and in many cases defined the movements listed above) were not always synthesized properly. Pigments in some of the greatest masterpieces of these movements have been found to be highly fugitive or rapidly discoloring. These unstable materials can react with adjacent or admixed pigments, agents of degradation in the environment, and even the paint binding media surrounding them. The urgent need for preservation of these works calls for intensive materials engineering approaches to identify their mechanisms of degradation and ensure their longevity for future generations. As complex multilayered mesoscale inorganic-organic composites, these paintings present a wealth of analytical challenges.

Artists working in this period of the 1880s to the 1920s were aware of the limitations of the materials available to them, and they attempted to make choices based upon the most stable options at hand. Paint manufacturers were also aware that not all of their offerings were equally stable, and they would note the stability of the pigments offered for sale. Within this context, however, we still have monumental works from this period changing so substantially that they no longer represent the artists' original vision. Pigments from this period that have been found to alter over time include chrome yellow (PbCrO4.PbSO4), zinc yellow (4ZnO.4CrO3,K2O.3H2O), cadmium yellow (CdS), emerald green (Cu(C2H3O2)2.3Cu(AsO2)2, eosin red (C20H8O5Br4, germanium lake), and purpurin (1,2,4-trihydroxyantrhaquinone).

Noninvasive methods for identifying these pigments (both before and after their alteration) including x-ray fluorescence, hyperspectral imaging, and ultraviolet-induced infrared fluorescence. To understand their mechanisms of degradation, however, requires microscale x-ray diffraction methods (XRD), x-ray absorption near edge spectroscopy (XANES), and scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) based methodologies such as electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS). Edvard Munch's four versions of The Scream(c. 1910) and Paul Cezanne's Large Bathers(c. 1895-1906) will be used as case studies to identify highly degraded pigments, their technologies of manufacture, and their mechanisms of degradation.

More about the Speaker:

Jennifer L. Mass is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Cultural Heritage Science at Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. She is also Founder and President of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, LLC (SAFA), a New York City-based company that studies attribution and materials degradation issues in artworks using molecular, microscopic, and imaging modalities. The global art market is a 67 billion dollar a year industry, and materials failure issues are routine, particularly in the modern and contemporary sector that makes up the largest segment of this market. SAFA's scientists advise contemporary artists on their choices of alloys, paints, coatings, and techniques, and on strategies for the long-term preservation of their works. They also address issues of authenticity in a market that is severely impacted by fakes, forgeries, undocumented copies, and posthumous castings/printings. The third major component of SAFA's business is understanding mechanisms of degradation as they appear in antiquities, Old Masters, and Impressionist through Expressionist paintings.

Jennifer has chaired the Gordon Research Conference in cultural heritage science, organized multiple Materials Issues in Art and Archaeology symposia, and is the chair of the scientific vetting committee for the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). Jennifer's work has received worldwide media attention, being highlighted on NPR's Science Friday and MSNBC as well as in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, the L.A. Times, London's Daily Telegraph and numerous other national and international media outlets. She publishes her research in the art conservation and scientific literature, and gives dozens of lectures a year on her work nationally and internationally. She is the former Director of the Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory at The Winterthur Museum, and has taught materials chemistry as it applies to art at the University of Delaware, Sotheby's Institute, the NYU Institute of Fine Art, SUNY College at Buffalo Art Conservation Department, and Columbia University Law School (art law program). She earned her Bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Franklin and Marshall College (1990), her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry and Materials Engineering from Cornell University (1995), and did her postdoctoral work at the Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

For more information, please contact Elizabeth Rodriguez by phone at 626-395-3329 or by email at [email protected].