Under Cover: The Science of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms

Under Cover: The Science of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms

Articles, Blog , , 10 Comments


It’s interesting that when people come to the Art Institute, they’re looking at The Bedroom and they think “Oh, I’ve seen this before,” without realizing that there are three versions, and they look very similar but there are a lot of differences And what makes this project so exciting is that now we included the conservators and scientists at Amsterdam and in Paris, and so that we’re really working collaboratively to find what makes one different. I’m a scientist here at the Art Institute, and as a scientist in the museum I use cutting edge scientific tools to understand the materials, understand how they may have changed over time, and help to answer many of the questions that The Bedroom has posed us through the years.
We go from tools that are very simple but very important, our eyes, to
high-powered microscopes, to tools that use x-rays, infrareds, ultraviolet light to
penetrate below the surface of the works and to discover things that our eyes
cannot see. I’m the research microscope in the conservation department. Going
back into the seventies when we first took tiny little samples, scraping samples, we mounted them on slides and then we compared them to what pigments we have in our reference
collection and we determined, you know what the palate was. We analyze the
ground material, we looked at the paint we looked at the painting technique, all
of those things. With raking light, we use an intense source of white light placed at a very sharp angle, close to the surface and that highlights the texture very
effectively and it’s really exciting because you can almost feel Van Gogh’s
gesture in applying the paint. In Chicago, the brush strokes are much more pronounced and expressive with a style of painting that has been described as
graphic due to its more linear quality and in Amsterdam the application is
more flat and Vincent says like a Japanese print. In our work we use x-rays to examine paintings the same way as we examine bodies–to reveal the inner
structure. In the case of the Amsterdam version there are elements in the
build-up of the paint that highlight how the wall paint was applied first and
then, for example, the pictures that we see on the wall where applied. When we
look at the Chicago painting we can see in that same area of the wall, there are some darker squares. In this case the artist had already an idea of where those pictures
would be. He leaves the space for the paintings to be painted. As technology evolves there are more things that we can see and that we can discover. And there are definitely tools now that allow, for example, in one single sweep to
reconstruct the palette That Van Gogh used that we didn’t have five years ago. Using x-rays to read the chemical composition of the paint, and what this allows us to do is to really compare the different mixtures that Van Gigh used, for
example, to depict the green in the Amsterdam version as opposed to the
Chicago version. Really until twenty years ago the
chronology and which one came first and which one came second that was still in
question and art historians and conservators were still trying to figure
out is the Amsterdam or the Chicago one the first? In his letters he talks about
making a smaller repetition for his mother and sister and the Paris
version is the smaller size, so we can know for sure that that was the version
that was intended. We go to the letters as almost like a witness, first witness account, of what happened and Van Gogh describes damage that occurred while the first version was in the studio. So then we look carefully at the
surface of the painting a little bit like a lunar landscape and looking for those craters that would be an evidence of the fact that with humidity, the canvas is
going to expand and contract in different ways and the hard paint on
top. And so what happens is the paint can flake and can expose bare canvas. On the
Chicago painting it’s evident that the flaking didn’t of course down to the
canvas. That is more likely another type of damage that Van Gogh also describe
where he says “I paint very quickly and the solvent evaporates quickly and I
have problems of adhesion of the different layers.” We use the evidence and the different types of damages that are described, and our observations of the
physical manifestation of the damage to determine which one came first. And our
observations confirm that the Amsterdam version is indeed the first one that was painted. What we were able to discover is a definitive understanding of the color and the color change. So we removed a small sample from the walls and mounted as a cross section, which is basically like a layer cake, exposing layers from the preparation of the canvas up to the top. While the top of that wall paint was light blue, inside the layer there were many particles of bright pink pigment, and, of course, pink and blue makes purple. Even if it’s microscopic, you can see it with your naked eyes, it’s bigger than one pigment particle, and it was really the eureka moment, like now we know what was was the color that Van Gogh intended. We have today scientific techniques to identify if there are pigments that have almost disappeared. Even if there is just one remaining particle we can find it like a needle in a haystack, and the pigment was carmine lake. Van Gogh was well aware that color changed, in fact he said that “paintings fade like flowers,” but he was very attracted by these bright pinks and purples, and so he uses them thinking that if he paints them boldly, time will tone them down. So the knowledge of identifying this pink pigment as carmine lake was the beginning of a journey in search of developing and refining our understanding of how we can
visualize this effect from a microscopic sample to the entire surface of the wall. But now we had to enlist many colleagues to come up with very complex algorithm and create as accurate as possible a visualization of what the painting
might have looked like with digital means. And this, of course, is a suggestion, but it’s a powerful suggestion. Even if it’s an iconic image that we all recognize, we can still discover so many new things.

10 thoughts on “Under Cover: The Science of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms

  • Teri Scallon Post author

    See you soon Chicago!

  • Candace Drimmer Post author

    It's an iconic, special museum.

  • TheSmileOffice Post author

    Fascinating – my question is – how do we now discover Van Gogh's heart? And how does it apply to our own right now in this moment? The actual passion to translate the light and energy he felt into the painting itself?

    The life of an artist is a wonder when we are alive. Look how much effort and how many people's lives have been affected in questioning the HOW TO's – yet we can discover our humanity in each moment from these colours, their soul message and our collective soul growth as we feel the colours inside us.

    Enjoy the art and support LIVING ARTISTS in your life.
    Darinka Blagaj.

  • Ivan O Post author

    Biggest problem of digital gallery is colorizing and this method is level up our digital feeling to original analog with pure enjoying.

  • Kristina Grey Post author

    I want to go to bed with Van Gogh.

  • Darkvine Post author

    Good thing for his letters explaining the different versions otherwise different versions with different techniques you'd think different artists eg fakes like the controversy with Van Gogh's sunflower paintings.

  • Bob Miller Post author

    The flaking problem was described by Vincent himself in one of his letters to his brother Theo. These paintings that were left on the walls at the yellow house when it was locked up December 24th the day before Christmas in 1888 was the primary cause of this happening. On his first return visit to the yellow house when he had the locks remove by the police when his friend and artist Bonnard was with him, he explained the whole reasoning of the flaking problem, if those supposed art experts care to read his letters. These people should become brewers,… they would receive and have more respect for their hard and time consuming work.

  • Unusual無奇不有 Post author

    Thumbs up! ♥¸.•°*”˜˜”*°•.✫Like: 185

  • Bio-plasmic Toad Post author

    If Vincent had never written his letters to his brother, we would not know much about his work and the man himself at all would we.

  • Jack Mundo Post author

    Francesca’s a beauty.

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