When it comes to Art and Chemistry, we typically see these two subjects as lying on opposite ends of a spectrum. Chemistry is typically associated with someone in a lab coat, mixing up some chemicals in the hopes of not blowing anything up. In contrast, art is often viewed as a form of expression crafted in some type of studio, using creative juices to design a masterpiece. But there is, in fact, a notable overlap between these two subjects. Specific chemical reactions have been involved historically in the creation of paints, dyes, clays, and metals used for artwork. More recently, it has also played a role in forgery detection and authentication.
Accounting for inflation, the original Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo da Vinci is valued at well over $834 million dollars. It is believed that there are at least four authentic versions of this world-renowned painting. Replicas have been sold at a fraction of the cost and one recently sold for $3.4 million at an auction in Paris. Using analytical testing, scientists can help reveal if paintings are authentic or forgeries. Just imagine spending all your hard-earned dollars on a gorgeous piece of artwork that you think is authentic, only to have it later tested and find out it is a fake. This is where the wonders of chemistry and science become your allies.
Early use of art and chemistry can be dated back to the Ancient Egyptian Era (around 3000 B.C.E.). For example, chemistry was involved in the creation of an early synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue. This pigment was used for paintings, hieroglyphics, and used to create the glaze that covers the ancient tombs. Even though the field of chemistry has evolved, the traditional techniques for creating and coloring pottery and sculptures are still used today. To the naked eye, replica artwork can have the same artistic style and similar pigments as the original. For art forgers, reproducing an artist’s signature, such as similar paint strokes, is an art in itself. But with the advancement of science, chemical techniques such as Raman Spectroscopy and Pyrolysis Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectroscopy are useful in detecting forgeries. The Raman effect refers to a small amount of light that will scatter from a molecule, at a different wavelength than the incident light. This effect is used in Raman instruments that use lasers and a designated wavelength to provide the best signal-to-noise ratio. Think about this as a screening tool to validate the chemical fingerprint of each molecule. Raman spectroscopy is a highly favored technique because the analysis can be done without destroying a sample. Raman Spectroscopy has been used to verify the composition of several paints, pigments, and dyes used in various artwork.
Because of the growing interest in interdisciplinary science, Dr. Yan Yu of Indiana University – Bloomington wanted to introduce something new for students, a class called Chemistry 100: The World as Chemistry. Dr. Yu received her Ph.D. from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois-Urbana. This class is designed to encourage imagination and chemistry learning while incorporating concepts from the visual arts. She started this course two years ago to make chemistry fun and accessible–as it is open to all majors. The course covers a variety of chemistry and art fusion topics, such as: metals in jewelry, color chemistry, and of course a variety of analytical techniques for art forgery detection. When asked about her favorite lecture material, Dr. Yu states, “Getting to teach about nanoparticles and how they are used to create stained glass”.
I bet you didn’t know that your favorite piece of stained glass was made from nanocrystals, huh? Silica particles, aka Quartz, is one of the most common chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust. Silica particles have many applications in the art industry and are commonly found in paintings. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to register for her Chem 100 course. Typically offered in the spring semester and available in spring 2023, this class is an opportunity to expand your artistic palette and knowledge of chemistry. Chemistry is just one of those topics that can be found anywhere and everywhere. So, the next time you visit an art museum or walk by a local church, think about the chemistry involved in making those pieces of art. Or, if you consider investing in artwork, consider the chemical techniques that can help ensure that you’re not buying a fake.
Acknowledgements & References:
Dr. Yan Yu, PhD
Sirro, S., Ershova, K., Kochemirovsky, V., Fiks, J., Kondrakhina, P., Ermakov, S., … & Kochemirovskaia, S. (2021). Recognition of fake paintings of the 20th-century Russian avant-garde using the physicochemical analysis of zinc white. Forensic Chemistry, 26, 100367.