Georges-Pierre Seurat, French. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884, 1884–86, painted border 1888/89. Oil on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago: Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.224.


Past Projects

NU-ACCESS is built on the solid foundations of an eight-year collaboration (2004-2012) between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago, made possible through Andrew W. Mellon Foundation support. Bridging different fields of research, polymer scientists saw the similarities in the curing of artists' paints with technological coatings. Chemists brought new analytical techniques to the identification of pigments especially difficult to discern as well as their degradation products. Electrical engineers with expertise in digital imaging revealed the coloristic evolution of works of art. Ceramists unearthed the sources of color in Ancient Chinese jades and the unique material fingerprints of the first precious examples of European hard–paste porcelain.

Through our combined efforts since 2004, Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago have established a successful track record of significant advances in conservation science across a variety of media. Highlights are described below. You may also view a complete list of NU-ACCESS Publications.

  • "Head of a Woman (Fernande)" by Pablo Picasso. A research team of chemists and materials scientists at Northwestern, together with a conservation scientist and object conservator at AIC used emission spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to examine more than 60 modern bronzes from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art created by European masters in Paris in the early 20th century. The compositions of these materials could be correlated in many cases to specific Paris foundries and often to specific casting methods, providing, in effect, "fingerprints" of the objects. "Fernande" has a low-zinc bronze composition that is more typical of sand-cast sculptures, but unlike those cast at the Rudier Foundry: the search for its unknown casting foundry is one of the open questions that the NU-ACCESS might be able to address by extending the alloy study to a wider range of collections.
  • "Bathers by a River" by Henri Matisse. Researchers from Northwestern's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science developed imaging technology to colorize archival black-and-white photos of early versions of this painting. This provided insights into Matisse's working methods and the coloristic development of this masterpiece over time and was part of the Art Institute's 2010 show "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917."
  • "For to be a Farmer's Boy" by Winslow Homer. Conservators discovered the painting's white skies were originally painted in unstable red and orange dyes that have almost completely faded. A team including Northwestern chemists has pioneered and perfected the method of surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) for the investigation of minute proportions of natural organic colorants and dye stuffs. This method provides unambiguous classification of artists' pigments, elusive by more conventional spectroscopic methods. As a result, researchers were able to determine exactly what the original colors were. The findings were featured in the museum's 2008 exhibition "Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light."
  • "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884" by Georges Seurat. The luminous zinc yellow pigment in this painting began to change within years of Seurat's completing the masterpiece, but no one knew why. Several years of joint research by researchers in environmental engineering and AIC scientists answered the question of the causes of the darkening of the pigment. By combining artificial aging of model systems and highly sophisticated measurements at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory and at Northwestern, the chemistries and likely processes of degradation leading to a substantial color alteration at the surface of the paint films were determined. Exposure to a humid climate and burning coal likely caused the darkening of the zinc yellow pigment used by Seurat. Information about the color change was used by the Art Institute to produce a 1:1 digital version of this monumental painting, with colors accurately rendered before the darkening occurred, which was included in the 2004 exhibition "Seurat and the making of la Grande Jatte".

Past Seminars

On the educational front, the collaboration successfully established a continuing seminar series on conservation science, characterized by high interdisciplinarity and cross-pollination. Talks spanned a variety of academic, industrial, conservation and applied topics of research. View a full list of past seminars.

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