When the eccentric 35-year-old artist settled in the southern French town of Arles in 1888, he had not yet achieved his breakthrough as a serious painter. In just 16 months, after stopovers in Antwerp and Paris, Vincent van Gogh created no fewer than 187 paintings in the small provincial town. The blue and yellow colors characteristic of the south of France are clearly reflected in the pictures he completed in the final period of his work. But did van Gogh himself really create all the paintings attributed to him?
This is to be clarified in a research project: together with the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum and the Shell corporation, employees of Carl Zeiss are now examining the authenticity of some doubtful works. Microstructures, pigments and priming layers provide information about the originator of the paintings. Using a transmission electron microscope (TEM) from Carl Zeiss, the research scientists analyze wafer-thin layers from color particles removed from the paintings. The result can make supposed van Goghs totally worthless in a matter of seconds.
How, you may be asking yourself? An ion beam cuts microscopically small layers in the form of cross-sections out of the material. This is where the TEM comes in: it examines the prepared layers with the aid of a special analytical process, making it possible to determine the composition of a specimen. And what did the researchers discover? Van Gogh preferred to use white lead mixed with barium sulfate: this means that, even 120 years later, it is possible to identify materials and painting techniques personally favored by the artist.
April 7, 2009