Art Under the Microscope: Looking More Closely at Historic Fine and Decorative Arts Finishes
The College of William and Mary
Department of Art and Art History
Lecture October 2019
Susan L. Buck, Ph.D., Conservator and Paint Analyst
We are all accustomed appreciating the appearance of art objects, but what about looking below the surfaces of an 18th-century polychrome chest, a painted carriage, a gilded frame, or a painted wooden bust?
The field of art conservation offers opportunities to understand and treat art objects and architectural materials in more intimate and revealing ways. Highly magnified images of tiny samples taken from paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts can provide critical information about how they were created, and how they might have discolored and degraded over time.
These “cross-section” samples can also reveal how objects have been deliberately altered or accidentally compromised. Optical microscopy techniques can also help to identify outright fakes or prove relationships between objects with solid provenances and similar forms with murkier trails of ownership.
Exploring the world of art materials – paints, lacquers, varnishes, gilding — under the microscope also can produce extraordinarily brilliant and informative images. There is so much more to learn about every form of art using reflected and transmitted light cross-section microscopy analysis techniques, and the colorful images generated through the microscope can often become their own form of art.
This lecture will discuss how optical microscopy analysis has provided information about sculptures which have been repainted many times, about deliberate alterations made to revered modern objects, about traditional craft practices, and about appropriate approaches for conservation or restoration of damaged surfaces.