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Student Researchers Travel the World to Preserve Iconic Paintings

Three Washington and Lee University juniors —Victoria Andrews, Lindsay Burns and Sam Florescu — hopped between France, Norway and Denmark this summer with Erich Uffelman, W&L’s Cincinnati Professor of Chemistry. The mystery they sought to solve? To determine why certain pigments in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and other iconic paintings are fading, and to determine how to stop the process.

“The story with ‘The Scream,’ and also some Matisse paintings, is that cadmium sulfide was used,” said Florescu, who is majoring in history and chemistry. “We’re trying to figure out how and if the degradation can be stopped. You have a brilliant yellow turning white or brown.”

The team members began this project in Grenoble, France, where they worked with Dr. Jennifer Mass, head of conservation science at the Winterthur Museum, in Delaware. “Jennifer is the leader of an international project looking at cadmium sulfide degradation,” said Uffelman.

In Grenoble, the students analyzed samples taken from paintings by Henri Matisse, James Ensor and Adriaen Coorte. They worked in the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), a ring-shaped building that can accelerate electrons almost to the speed of light, a process that produces intense X-rays.

“The quality of the X-rays that are generated that you can look at a few atoms at a time as opposed to looking at hundreds of atoms at a time,” said Florescu. From these X-rays, art conservators and art conservation scientists can learn helpful details about the elements in the paint’s pigment.

The team thrilled at working collaboratively inside the synchrotron. “There were so many different types of scientists working together. There were the conservation scientists. The chemists. The beamline scientists. Physicists,” said Lindsay Burns, a biochemistry major. “There was just everyone collaborating together, and that’s not something you see at a lab during the school year.”

Their next stop was the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, home of the 1910 version of “The Scream.” One of four versions Munch painted, it was stolen in 2004 but recovered two years later.

To analyze “The Scream,” Uffelman used a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF). An XRF analysis can reveal the elements present in the pigments in a painting. One of the key features of XRF analysis is that it is non-destructive and can be used without making contact with the painting.

While in Oslo, the team attended a Munch conference, which was held during the 150th anniversary celebration of Munch’s birth. The team then traveled with Mass to the Statens Museum for Kunst, in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they analyzed another Matisse painting.

The project then led Uffelman and his students back to the United States, where they traveled all the way to…Washington and Lee’s Reeves Center.

The Reeves Center is relevant to the project because of its collection of art by Louise Herreshoff. Most of her paintings contain cadmium sulfide, said Uffelman, and he wants to know whether or not they are undergoing cadmium yellow degradation. Their condition may prove useful to research by the Winterthur’s Mass into pigment degradation.

“Our Herreshoff paintings, because of the history of their storage, may be in an earlier state of the degradation process than some of these other paintings,” said Uffelman. “That may prove interesting in terms of exploring the degradation pathway.”

Exposure to light is an issue in pigment degration, and Uffelman noted that chloride may be part of the problem. Using information it gleaned this summer, the team hopes it can determine the original appearance of deteriorating paintings. Uffelman also wants to be able to recommend “more specific display conditions that will minimize the future degradation of these pigments.”

The students’ research was supported by various grants. Victoria Andrews and Lindsay Burns received funding from the Summer Scholars Program and obtained Johnson Opportunity Grants. Florescu’s research was supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The Erik T. Woolley Fellowship provided additional student funding. Mass’ project was partially funded by the Lenfest Foundation.

“I just found it really great to be able to go behind the scenes,” said Andrews, who’s majoring in art history and biochemistry. “It was pretty breathtaking having the Matisse just sitting on the table. Or ‘The Scream.’ “

—Amy C. Balfour ’89,  ’93L