Renoir reds revealed at Art Institute exhibit and AAAS

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Madame Léon Clapisson, 1883. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Madame Léon Clapisson, 1883. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago.

By Katie Golde

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, lovebirds of Chicago can flock to the Art Institute’s newest exhibit and view Renoir’s real reds as they haven’t been seen since 1883. And it’s all thanks to chemistry and conservation.

The collaborative work of Northwestern University chemist Richard Van Duyne and Art Institute of Chicago conservation scientists brings the reds back to life in the exhibit, “Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery.”

The team utilized spectroscopy technology developed by Van Duyne to dive beyond the surface of the paintings and help identify components of paint that might tell conservationists what the original paint colors may have look liked. The colors in paintings can change significantly over time.

Van Duyne discovered the surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy technology in 1977.  SERS is used to detect and identify single molecules in a component. Spectroscopy allows scientists to analyze light precisely by wavelength.

Van Duyne and his colleagues identified molecular components of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s oil panting “Madame Leon Clapisson.” Research revealed that Renoir used carmine lake, a red pigment that is described as “brilliant but light-sensitive,” suggesting that the color has faded over time.
No one tool can tell you everything, said Van Duyne, who said adapting methodologies was key to identifying the organic components, like the kind in the red paint in Renoir’s masterpiece.

“Analyzing organic molecules has been very difficult to do before,” he said.
Van Duyne described the process at a press briefing Thursday, the opening day in Chicago of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Details of Renoir’s paint materials were used to help produce a digital visualization of the paintings original colors, which will be featured in the exhibit. The reproduction will stand next to the original, allowing visitors a glimpse into what Renoir’s piece may have looked like closer to its creation.

The art world is seeing a Renaissance of art partnering with science. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, for instance, is offering 3-D reproductions of Van Gogh’s masterpieces, called “Relievos,” to highlight texture and color.

Van Duyne will speak about the process and technology involved in the project at the AAAS conference in at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago Feb 14.

“Renoir’s True Colors: Science Solves a Mystery” will be on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 27.

Other Highlights of the AAAS conference 

Family Science Days Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 15 and 16, are free events for the whole family. They include hands-on events like: Your Brain on Video Games and Art Meets Science: Picasso at the Nanoscale.

The Suffocation of Marriage – Dr. Eli Finkel of Northwestern University will discuss the expectations of  marriage within a historical framework and comments on contemporary American’s view of marriages with suggestions and skepticisms Sunday, Feb 16.

The AAAS President’s public address will be given by Dr. Phillip Sharp of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Thursday at 6 p.m. Sharp is a reputable molecular biologist and shared a Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, celebrating for his discovery of “split genes.”

An estimated 5,000 scientists from across the world are attending the conference and more than 700 members of the media are covering it.