Pablo Picasso: Decorator

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  • Published: Feb 15, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: X-ray Spectrometry
thumbnail image: Pablo Picasso: Decorator

Household chores

Photos courtesy of Francesca Casadio, senior conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago, host of the Picasso works studied

What type of paint did one of the most renowned and infamous artists of the twentieth, century, Pablo Picasso, use in his work - matte, gloss or emulsion? The Art Institute of Chicago and scientists at Argonne National Laboratory think they know having used a hard X-ray nanoprobe to help them unravel what is a decades-long debate among art scholars.

Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, (1881–1973) was a Spanish artist who spent much of his adult life in France. He became known as one of the most influential of the 20th century artists, having co-founded the Cubist movement as well as inventing sculptural and collaging styles. Where artistic painters commonly used oils or watercolours, there is a theory widely held to be true among one section of the art world that Picasso brushed aside conventional artists' paints in favour of household paint of the kind used in domestic decorating. "Art historians have long known about Picasso's use of Ripolin from written documents and photos of his studios that show cans of this paint - and others," Francesca Casadio, senior conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago told SpectroscopyNOW. "However, there wasn't any material-based evidence to identify specific works as being painted with Ripolin, a gap that our scientific research has aimed to fill."

The development of a unique high-energy X-ray instrument, called the hard X-ray nanoprobe, at the US Department of Energy's Advanced Photon Source (APS) X-ray facility and the Center for Nanoscale Materials, both housed at Argonne may settle the argument.

Painterly nanoprobe

The nanoprobe was designed for high-performance analysis of materials allowing researchers the opportunity to get a close look at the chemical structure of a sample with a spatial resolution as high as a two thousandth of the thickness of a sheet of paper. Now, work published in the January issue of the journal "Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing" lends support to Picasso having made the switch from the traditional artists' paint to glossy household paint and thus giving birth to a new style of art characterised by glossy images with marbling, muted edges, and occasional errant paint drips but devoid of the normal brush marks present in acres of canvas. Picasso seemingly exploited the new fast-drying enamel house paint allowing him to make a dramatic departure from slow-drying oil blends that artists for generations before had used.

Physicist Volker Rose of Argonne National Laboratory has used the nanoprobe at the APS/CNM to study zinc oxide. This compound is an important material in wide-band-gap semiconductors and is identical to zinc white paint pigments. Metallic impurities by type of paint and brand, of course, and so offer a forensic clue to what an artist might have used in a particular painting. However, the used the nanoprobe to compare the chemistry of decades-old paint samples collected through eBay purchases with samples from Picasso paintings based on a subtly different aspect of the chemistry. "What we measured was the level of metallic impurities within the individual pigment particles," Casadia explains. "This is what may give clues as to the production process for Zinc white. Typical impurities include platinum, lead, iron and tin." They were thus able to match paints used by Picasso with samples of a commercial house paint, Ripolin.

Art conservators and historians have tried over many years to use standard optical and electron microscopy technique to determine whether or not Picasso was the first to break with the cultural tradition of artists' using expensive paints designed specifically for their craft and switching to domestic paint. They failed to make a case though because those techniques simply cannot probe deep into the chemical structure of the paint and so cannot distinguish between shop-bought enamel paint or techniques used by some artists mimic the effect of its use in art.

Canvassing opinion

"Appearances can deceive, so this is where art can benefit from scientific research," said Casadio. "We needed to reverse engineer the paint, so that we could figure out if there was a fingerprint that we could then look for in the pictures around the world that are suspected to be painted with Ripolin, the first commercial brand of house paint." Rose adds that, "The nanoprobe at the APS/CNM allowed unprecedented visualization of information about chemical composition within a single grain of paint pigment, significantly reducing doubt that Picasso used common house paint in a famous work." One such painting being "The Red Arm Chair (1931), which is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. "We suspect that Guernica may be, but we have not had the opportunity to test it," adds Casadio.

This work represents the last step in a complex characterization protocol, that also uses optical, spectroscopic and electron microscopy techniques. However, this approach to the chemical characterization of paints could have a much wider use than the study of Picasso's paintings. It could be used to examine impurities and trace elements in the pigments and materials of ancient artworks and so assist in establishing provenance as well as perhaps shedding new light on ancient trade routes.

"The so-called Ripolin project at the Art Institute aims at establishing unambiguous identifying criteria for oil-based enamel paints produced in France by Ripolin before 1950, so that we can accurately tell art historians in which paintings the medium was used," Casadio told SpectroscopyNOW. "This would allow them to further elaborate theories and interpretations on the artist's intention for his frequent use of enamel paints at different times in his long career." The project is still ongoing and is also now focused on the characterization of the binding medium. "We are also launching a phase II where we are surveying collections containing works painted with oil-based enamel paints to establish a database of possible deterioration phenomena, as well as study whether conservation treatments traditionally applied to artists' oils are appropriate for house paints as well," she adds.

"Our research has opened the view into the nanoworld for cultural heritage research, "Volker told us. "The capability to study the shape, structure and chemistry at the nanoscale will enable us to move beyond more conventional conservation research. Because of the high spatial resolution and great chemical sensitivity of the nanoprobe we are able to study degradation processes in paintings with the objective of developing better conservation techniques." Intriguingly, the same studies of metallic impurities in Picasso paint might allow researchers to develop advanced displays or low-cost LEDs. "The connection might not be that obvious, but the material used by Picasso is a hot research topic in physics," adds Volker.

Related Links

Appl Phys A: Mater Sci Processing 2013, online: "High-Resolution Fluorescence Mapping of Impurities in the Historical Zinc Oxide Pigments: Hard X-ray Nanoprobe Applications to the Paints of Pablo Picasso"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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