Introduction

The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings was conceived by Brandi Lee MacDonald at McMaster University in 2010 as a series of conversations about the potential for nondestructive techniques to analyze works of art, and quickly evolved to become the multidisciplinary, collaborative study presented here.

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The Art of Connoisseurship

“Hello. It’s me.” You hear the voice on the telephone, and with just four syllables you recognize the caller immediately. If asked to explain how or why, you might mention qualities such as pitch, cadence, or accent, but ultimately, the distinctively personal character of the voice may be hard to define. That flash of recognition happens before you have even realized it, a product of intimate familiarity with the speaker.

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Conservation Science and Paintings

Scientists have a long history of working with cultural objects.[i] For example, in the late eighteenth century, Claude-Louis Berthollet and André Thouin accompanied the Napoleonic army to the Italian peninsula, where, in addition to other duties, they evaluated the condition of artworks that had been confiscated.[ii]

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Conservation and Condition Issues

Conservation encompasses a range of endeavours that seek to preserve and restore cultural material, such as paintings, drawings and prints, sculpture, and decorative arts, all of which deteriorate over time from the effects of environment, the inherent instability of the artistic materials, and misguided human interventions. A fundamental objective of conservation is to provide works of art with suitable physical and environmental conditions for their safekeeping.

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Histories of Selected Artists’ Pigments

Artists’ pigments have long been a point of interest for researchers in cultural heritage. In the 1960s, Gettens and Plesters described the need for a handbook of painting materials that could serve the interests of chemists, conservators, curators, and collectors in the field of art.[i] Their efforts resulted in a series of volumes dedicated to the description of pigments by experts from around the world. That series, and others like it, are excellent sources of information on the extensive historical documentation of pigment history.

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The Analysis of Inorganic Pigments Using Spectrometric Techniques

A painting, as an object, consists of multiple components that, when analyzed together, have a unique story to tell about the artist, his or her practice, and the history of the piece. The supporting material, grounds, pigments, and varnishes that a painter chose to employ have the potential to reveal a great deal of information about the composition, context, and decision-making involved in the creation of a work, and their analysis contributes to our understanding of the artist’s oeuvre.

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The Technical Art Historian’s Methods of Investigation: Some Tools and Practices

Paintings are complex, multilayered objects, of which we can usually only see the surface layer. These objects result from a series of processes involving the selection and application of painting materials and techniques. The painter chooses a support for the painting (often wood or canvas), a ground material on which to apply the paint, and pigments that are bound in a medium of the artist’s choosing.

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Imaging Using X-rays and Neutrons

The first X-ray image was taken by Professor Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, a mere two weeks after he had first discovered the phenomenon he called “X-rays.” The remarkably obliging Frau Röntgen allowed her hand to be fixed between the X-ray source and a photographic plate: the image shows the clear pattern of the bones of her hand, the ghostly outline of the skin and muscles, and a ring that was studded with small jewels (Fig. 1).

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Limits of the Eye and the Engine of Curiosity

The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings project began as a modest but focused transdisciplinary examination of nine paintings from the McMaster Museum of Art collection. The prime objective was to explore specific and precise material conditions: how were these artworks made and what was the material history, including changes and alterations over time. The information gleaned from these explorations then allowed reflection on why these objects were made in relation to ascribed

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Disciplines in Motion: The Changing Roles of Museum Curators, Art Conservators, and Conservation Scientists

The research and exhibition project The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings, organized by the McMaster Museum of Art, is another welcome example of a fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration of art historians, art conservators, and conservation scientists. Nenagh Hathaway and Brandi MacDonald, both PhD candidates (at Queen’s University and McMaster University, respectively), did an exemplary job of coordinating this project. The results of this four-year venture are laid out in this publication.

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