The Secret Life of Art

The Secret Life of Art

The recent lecture by Prof. dr. Robert Erdmann (Rijksmuseum/UvA) explained the usage of data science in art history and art conservation.

On the 17th of October Prof. dr. Robert Erdmann gave a lecture on the use of data science in art history and conservation. During his presentation, Professor Erdmann introduced variety of different imaging techniques and their use for academic purposes. I will talk about two techniques which particularly caught my attention: infrared images and X-ray fluorescence.

First, Professor Erdmann introduced the most well-known imaging technique: infrared images. Indeed, we often hear about the use of this imaging method in the field of art history. However, it always appeared unclear to me to what extent this technique could give relevant and exploitable information on any painting. Professor Erdmann took the example of Saint John the Baptist by Jheronimus Bosch in which infrared reflectography allow us to see that a figure next to Saint John was painted over by the artist. Professor Erdmann also showed us how these kind of images can be used to see past restorations (one is just above Saint John). He and his team had made great efforts to display this data in an understandable way for art scholars. Thus, with the "curtain view" we just have to move our mouse on the screen to extend or reduce the type of data (visible, infrared reflectography, etc.). This display mode allows a precise, efficient and accurate comparison of different data.

Visible photography on the left and infrared reflectography on the right. [i]

Afterwards, Professor Erdmann also presented his project on Rembrandt's The Night Watch. One of the aspects of the project was to realize a full mapping of the painting with X-ray fluorescence (XRF) that maps the chemical elements on the painting. Thanks to this "chemical mapping", we can guess which pigments were locally used on the painting. We can then know what were the colors of the painting at the time it was made.

The lecture by Professor Robert Erdmann provided an insight into the different imaging techniques used in the field of art history. Professor Erdmann explained to what extent these techniques can be useful for academic research. However, his presentation also allowed us to realize how much data we will have on artworks in a few years. Thus, this lecture raises the question on the usefulness and the appropriation of this huge amount of data by scholars in the future.

[i] Jheronimus Bosch, Saint John the Baptist, 1495, oil on panel, 48.5x40 cm., Museo Lázaro Galdiano.