If you are near London, you have 2 weeks left to see the exhibit Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries at the National Gallery. If you are like me and can not make it, they thankfully have a very cool set of case studies on-line to compliment the exhibit.
Conservation Science is the application of chemical and biological techniques to the study of paintings and art objects. Analysis and identification of an artist’s materials is beneficial for conservators who must select the best processes for cleaning a work. However, a lot of other information can be gained which helps art historian understand the “life” of the work such as where and when it was executed, how the artist completed the piece and if later additions were made. For example, x-ray analysis can show places in which a part of a painting, like a hand or face, was reworked. Sometimes this is done by the artist, or as the National Gallery shows in some examples, by later owners to suit the period’s tastes or possible make the painting more desirable to buyers. Four Figures at a Table by The Le Nain Brothers (below) is a really striking example of how much more we can learn about a painting through scientific analysis.
We take it for granted now that an artist would sign his or her work but this was not always the case. Carefully connoisseurship of an artist’s style can help attribute paintings but sometimes it is scientific analysis that can either rule out a great master or identify a painting’s creator. The fakes section of the National Gallery’s on-line exhibit is great too! In the end, scientific evidence will always trump exquisite craftsmanship.