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Scientific Research


The scientific research department uses scientific techniques and instrumentation to carry out its twofold mission: research and development of new materials for use in the conservation of works of art, and investigation into the methods and materials of artists. The Gallery's commitment to scientific research began in 1950 with the appointment of Dr. Robert L. Feller as technical advisor for conservation and curatorial activities. The department, which hired its first in-house scientist in 1976 and its first full-time scientist in 1984, now includes experts in the fields of chemistry, botany, conservation, and art history. The scientists work in collaboration with curators and conservators on topics related directly to the Gallery's collection, as well as on problems of general interest to the international conservation community. The department's fully equipped laboratory includes microscopic, chromatographic, and spectrophotometric instrumentation.

The results of the department's research are disseminated in publications and at national and international conferences, seminars, and symposia. The conservation community has adopted several new varnishes and conservation paints based directly on work done at the Gallery. Staff members collaborate with other conservation scientists and conservators in museums, conservation laboratories, and universities both nationally and internationally, and work with fellows, interns, and visiting scientists hosted each year by the department.

Conservation Materials


Research on conservation materials at the National Gallery of Art has focused on coating materials, such as paints for retouching, coatings for the protection of outdoor bronzes, and varnishes for paintings. In this research, modern synthetic materials are tested for their use in conservation applications, often as replacements for traditional materials, which may be based on unstable natural products. Extensive use is being made of the expertise and materials available from the chemical industry. The materials are tested using accelerated aging methods. Stabilizing additives may be used to prolong the useful life of the materials. Conservators use an array of analytical methods to monitor changes during aging, after which time they judge the products for handling and appearance.

Artists' Methods and Materials


Research on the materials and techniques of works of art seeks to identify the materials used by artists and to understand the ways in which artists handled these materials. While this research often conjures up images of authentication or the exposure of forgeries, most research centers on two issues. One line of inquiry supports conservation treatments by distinguishing between the artist's original work and any alterations introduced by later restorers or by the aging process. Another area of research furthers art-historical studies by tracing the artist's decision-making process, revealed by changes to the work of art made by the artist during its creation or by choices of novel materials and techniques.

Analytical Imaging


Pablo Picasso, like many other artists, is known to have recycled his painted canvases, as well as to have made large "evolutionary" changes to his paintings. Conservation and imaging scientists at the Gallery have been working to improve the visualization of these paint changes by applying newly developed optical imaging methods. Working with researchers and specialized infrared cameras from the United States Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, they have been able to obtain a clear image of the portrait beneath Picasso's Blue period painting Le Gourmet (1901). This hidden portrait of a woman is executed in a style used by Picasso prior to his Blue period, as indicated by the bold dabs of paint seen in the woman's mantilla.

16th-Century Renaissance Pigments and Painting Techniques

The Feast of the Gods

Explore the pigments used by Giorgione and Bellini and see the structure of paintings on a microscopic level.