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Nenagh Hathaway and Brandi Lee MacDonald

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. This project focuses on the technical analysis of nine paintings from the McMaster Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Drawing on a range of expertise, we have developed an exhibition that places equal emphasis on the scientific processes and tools used to gather information, as well as on the interpretive results of those endeavours. At the conception of the project we identified several interesting research questions for each of the works in this exhibition. Our enquiries concentrated on themes including painting technique and materials, attribution, connoisseurship, as well as issues of object condition and stability. As is the case with many research campaigns, many of our explorations into these paintings subsequently led to even more interesting questions. The results of these examinations have produced a series of unique narratives not only about the objects but also about the research process itself.

The Unvarnished Truth presents paintings as complex physical objects whose component parts tell us a story about their history. The exhibition is the result of a series of interdisciplinary workshops that bring together the contributions of a range of specialists from around the world. In displaying the results of our technical investigations, we hope to alert our audience to the valuable insights that are generated when scientific equipment is used to answer art historical questions. This approach, often called technical art history, is a relatively young field that examines artworks and their material properties by incorporating the expertise of art historians, conservators, scientists, conservation scientists, and researchers from a variety of other disciplines.

As it has become more common to study art using scientific techniques, the necessity to interpret and synthesize the expanding range of data has also grown. This type of research has been—and remains—closely connected to efforts that are focused on the preservation of artworks. Several developments in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century greatly impacted the initial formation of the discipline. The professionalization of the field of conservation, as well as the application of scientific technologies to the study of art in the 1920s and 1930s, helped establish the significance of technical research in the study of art.[i] Over the course of the nineteenth century, several scientific instruments were created that have today become standard tools in the analysis of artworks. Although X-radiography was developed in 1895 and was first applied to the study of paintings the following year, it was not until the pioneering work of Alan Burroughs at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University that the technique was used in a systematic fashion.[ii] The Fogg was a key centre for the advancement of this type of research, largely due to the efforts of Edward Forbes, who served as its director from 1909 to 1944.[iii] In Europe, Paul Coremans was a highly influential figure in the field, supervising a watershed conservation and research initiative from 1950 to 1951 that focused on the Ghent Altarpiece. One of Coremans’s younger colleagues in Brussels, the physicist J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer, invented infrared reflectography (IRR) in the late 1960s. IRR along with ultraviolet analysis, infrared photography, and X-radiography comprises some of the most important tools of technical analysis. Throughout this catalogue you will find both descriptions of these tools as well as examples of their application to the study of paintings.

Technical art history has continued to adapt as new technologies are developed and existing equipment is improved. A relatively recent example is the incorporation of the possibilities offered by the Internet and the digital age.[iv] As more sophisticated tools are created, like macro-X-ray fluorescence for example, technical art history will evolve further, encouraging more voices to join the discussion. The Unvarnished Truth is significant in that it is the product of a great range of expertise. With contributions from several institutions in Canada (McMaster University, McMaster Museum of Art, and Queen’s University) and the United States (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Northern Light Studio), the nine paintings analyzed benefit from the application of a deep and varied set of skills.

Nenagh Hathaway and Brandi Lee MacDonald co-curated this exhibition, along with Ihor Holubizky. Hathaway and MacDonald also coordinated several workshops where researchers engaged in lively discussions, sharing ideas about the nine paintings now on display. Nenagh Hathaway is a PhD candidate in Art History at Queen’s University whose thesis focuses on studying the grisaille technique of fifteenth and sixteenth century Netherlandish triptychs. Hathaway completed her MLitt at the University of Glasgow in a technical art history program, and from 2013 to 2014 employed Queen’s OSIRIS infrared camera to document paintings in Europe. Her studies are concentrated on the analysis and interpretation of painting materials and techniques. Brandi Lee MacDonald has a PhD in Anthropology from McMaster University and is a Research Associate in McMaster’s Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences. Her theoretical interests in archaeology are related to cultural perceptions of natural places and human engagement with the mineral world, and her approach involves the use of geochemical analytical techniques to trace the acquisition, movement, and usage contexts of materials used as pigments. Her research focuses on histories of red ochre use, with a current focus on nondestructive pigment testing of pictographs located in the lower Canadian Shield.

The project could not have happened without the enthusiastic support of our supervisors, Fiona McNeill and Ron Spronk. Dr. McNeill is a Professor in the Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences and an Associate Vice-President of Research at McMaster University. For this project, she provided expertise in the areas of X-radiography and X-ray fluorescence. It is thanks to Dr. McNeill and the generous support of McMaster University that this exhibition has been able to access the necessary facilities to pursue important research questions. This project is deeply indebted to such consistent support. Dr. Spronk specializes in the technical investigation of paintings. He is a Professor of Art History at Queen’s University and Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Since his initial involvement with the McMaster exhibition, Spronk has encouraged the participation of staff and students from Queen’s, acting as a major driving force behind the project and enriching its interdisciplinary nature. At Queen’s, Spronk is setting up a mobile laboratory for technical art history (QU-MoLTAH). He is currently closely involved with three major international projects: the conservation/restoration treatment of Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, and the research cum exhibition project on Pieter Bruegel the Elder in Vienna.

Staff at the McMaster Museum of Art have provided essential support and expertise. Carol Podedworny holds an MA (Art History) from York University, an MMSt from the University of Toronto, and a BA (Art History) from the University of Guelph. She has worked in the arts community as a curator and director since 1982. She has taught at York University, Queen’s University, the University of Waterloo, and McMaster University. Her research interests include museum and curatorial practice and contemporary First Nations art. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, and the Director and Chief Curator of the McMaster Museum of Art. Ihor Holubizky did his undergraduate degree in History and Political Science at the University of Toronto, and a PhD in Art History at the University of Queensland (Australia), examining transnational cultural traffic in the modern age. He has held curatorial positions across Canada and in Australia, and is currently Senior Curator at the McMaster Museum of Art. Julie Bronson received her BA, Honours (Classics and Art History) from McMaster University. She is currently the Collections Administrator at the McMaster Museum of Art, overseeing its permanent collection, loans, and exhibitions. Her organization of materials and archival research has contributed significantly to the logistical success of this project.

Specialists from McMaster University have also made significant contributions to this project. Mike Noseworthy is an Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences. He is also Co-Director of the McMaster School of Biomedical Engineering, and Director of Imaging Physics and Engineering at the Imaging Research Centre, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Hamilton. He and his doctoral student, Evan McNabb (biomedical engineering), contributed their expertise in image co-registration, which provided an invaluable tool for the comparative analysis of the imaging formats presented here.

Two other members of the project team come from Queen’s University. Alison Murray is an Associate Professor in their Art Conservation program. With degrees from McGill University and Johns Hopkins University, Murray brings expertise in materials science, engineering, and conservation science to the group. Her current research interests include the characterization and conservation of modern materials. Professor Stephanie Dickey holds a Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art and teaches courses on seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish art. She has worked on exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Experts working in the United States form an essential part of this exhibition. We have been fortunate enough to have involved Gianfranco Pocobene, Head of Conservation and Paintings Conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, in our initiative. Pocobene trained at Queen’s University in conservation, and his years of experience in the field have been of great value to the group. When he worked at the Harvard Art Museums, he co-edited a publication on John Singer Sargent’s mural cycle Triumph of Religion, which was published in 2010. Not only was Pocobene responsible for creating the condition reports from which many of our initial insights about paintings developed, he also offered the equipment and training necessary to conduct the reflectance transformation imaging analysis. Pocobene has been an integral member of our team.

Phoebe Weil, Co-Director of Northern Light Studio in St. Louis, Missouri, has also been an integral part of our research. Both Pocobene and Weil bring to the group a deep understanding of the materials and techniques of painting. Don H. Johnson, J. S. Abercrombie Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University, also performed thread count analysis on the Van Gogh. Our understanding of the paintings included in this exhibition is greatly enriched by the contributions of these individuals.

There are a number of other individuals from Canadian institutions who have contributed their time, skills, and facilities. Joanne O’Meara (Department of Physics, University of Guelph), offered X-ray fluorescence technology for the elemental analysis of pigments. Ajesh Singh and Sandra Charbonneau (both of the Health Sciences program at Mohawk College) provided technical expertise in X-radiography of the paintings. Joshua Vandersteldt (Nray Services Inc., Hamilton) was instrumental in both X-radiography and neutron radiography at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor. Jim Britten and Victoria Jarvis of the McMaster XRD Lab assisted with molecular analysis of pigment samples. Elstan Desouza (Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences, McMaster University) established the technology and protocol for 2-D XRF elemental scanning. This project has truly been supported by a broad foundation of technical and analytical expertise, and without these individuals this project could not have been possible.

We are also indebted to research conducted by those outside of North America. Dr. Peter Klein, a wood biologist and retired professor from the University of Hamburg, performed dendrochronology on two paintings to determine the wood species and to clarify their dating. The Unvarnished Truth is, and has been since its inception, a highly co-operative and interdisciplinary initiative.

It is our hope that this exhibition stimulates an interest in looking more closely at paintings. When we study an object on many levels, including not only its surface but also those layers that are usually hidden to the human eye, we can begin to understand the story of the object. Paintings can be examined from many angles, as demonstrated by the contributions in this volume. We can interpret their meanings based on a variety of information including data gathered from technical analysis. We hope that this exhibition will add a new dimension to the way our audience thinks about paintings, and that it inspires other Canadian collections to pursue technical investigations and exhibit their findings to the public.


[i] Erma Hermens, “Technical Art History: The Synergy of Art, Conservation and Science,” in Art History and Visual Studies in Europe: Transnational Discourses and National Frameworks, ed. Matthew Rampley et al. (Leiden, The Netherlands; Boston: Brill, 2012), 151.

[ii] Ron Spronk, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Early Years of Conservation and Technical Examination of Netherlandish Paintings at the Fogg Art Museum,” in Recent Developments in the Technical Examination of Early Netherlandish Painting: Methodology, Limitations & Perspectives, ed. Molly Faries and Ron Spronk (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2003), 45.

[iii] Spronk, “Standing On the Shoulders of Giants,” 40–45; see also Francesca G. Bewer, A Laboratory for Art. Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900–1950 (Cambridge, MA: Yale University Press, 2010).

[iv] An excellent example of the way in which the Internet has generated access to the results of technical study is the website “Closer to Van Eyck,” http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be; n.d.