Art and Science: The Amsterdam Experience

Posing in front of the Rijksmuseum in the famous “I Amsterdam” sign.

My name is Francesca Long and I am just entering into the second year of my PhD in materials science at Northwestern University. I am lucky enough to spend two months this summer in Amsterdam as part of the Cultural Heritage in the Netherlands program: a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored International Research Experience for Students (IRES). My undergraduate degree is in Materials Science and I focused in metallurgy, the topic of my graduate research as well. Back in the US, I study cobalt-based super alloys and do a lot of mechanical testing and microscopy to study my samples. Despite this background in metals, I had always had a strong passion and interest in the arts. I did a minor in Classical Studies alongside my bachelor’s degree and was able to take a class that blended art and Materials Science both in my senior year of undergrad and my first year of graduate school. The course I took in graduate school was all about the field of art conservation from the materials science point of view and really opened my eyes to this field. It became quite clear that this was something I was truly passionate about and wanted to be able to be a part of.

My favorite place to eat my lunch: in the Rijksmuseum garden.

I was fortunate enough to have been allowed to come to Amsterdam to get my first real experience in this field of research at the Ateliergebouw Rijksmuseum. My project is focused on the degradation of arsenic sulfide-based pigments. Artists use many layers in their works to achieve their desired final look, however over time the surface can change in appearance. It is well known that arsenic sulfide pigments, specifically Orpiment and Realgar, are very sensitive to light and moisture in the air and within the paint layers and as such they break down over time and can lose their gorgeous yellow and orange hues. I will be using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDX) to analyze cross sections thought or known to contain these pigments in order to determine: the presence of orpiment and/or realgar and the composition of the paint layer as a whole. By knowing what else is present, we hope to add further insight into how these rich pigments go through such a dramatic change and lose their vibrant color and turn white or transparent with age. In addition to this, I am working in collaboration with a conservator who is translating paint recipes in order to hopefully pair up the paints we study in cross sections with old treatises to know exactly what recipes an artist used.

The Netherlands has a very strong national pride in their art. Rembrandt’s Night Watch is beloved all around the world but especially here among countless others. It is this dedication as a whole towards preserving their cultural icons that makes the Netherlands the perfect place for this kind of research. It is something people are fiercely passionate about and as such the resources needed to study how best to preserve and protect works of art are readily available. Not only that, but being in the context of the paintings one is studying makes all the difference in the world. I can look at a cross section and see on and online database what painting it came from and where, but to be able to walk across the street into the Rijksmuseum and see that same painting on the wall in it’s full glory is indescribable. It puts the work into perspective and makes it seem all that much more important.

EDX elemental mapping (right monitor) and corresponding SEM image (left monitor) of a cross section from a De Heem still life on a day it was cooperating with me.

I think doing research abroad has so many benefits to simply staying in the US and working with collaborators in different countries. It exposes one to new languages and cultures and allows one to immerse themselves in their work while experiencing all that another country has to offer. The relationships I can form and build on while here will carry on long after I leave the US and open up the doors in terms of future collaborations. It removes the distractions of being at home and allows the science to become the main focus of the summer. This is a wonderful opportunity and one I would highly recommend to anyone with even the slightest thought of wanting to do a program like this.

As with any research project, I quickly learned that things don’t always go to plan immediately. Equipment can break and take time to get working again which is always frustrating. However, when the SEM computer started giving up, it allowed me to attend a conference that was going on at the Ateliergebouw where I heard a lot of interesting talks about different techniques being developed for use by conservators to study their works safely. I have learned more about artistic methods and painting style in the last three weeks than I ever thought possible. I have learned that I really do want to continue working in this field because every day I am excited to go into the lab and do experiments or even to just sit at my desk and read papers about this line of work. I have also learned that the Dutch are far better at speaking English than I am at speaking Dutch (which isn’t saying much as I have only mastered a few words in Dutch so far) and are so welcoming and happy to help and share their own research with me. I never felt like my lack of experience in this field was a hindrance, it only meant that there was that much more for me to learn every day that I am here and for me to continue learning over the weeks to come.