Photon-based techniques for nondestructive subsurface analysis of painted cultural heritage artifacts
Faculty of Sciences. Chemistry
Accounts of chemical research. - Washington, D.C.
, p. 814-825
University of Antwerp
Often, just micrometers below a paintings surface lies a wealth of information, both with Old Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn and with more recent artists of great renown such as Vincent Van Gogh and James Ensor. Subsurface layers may include underdrawing, underpainting, and alterations, and in a growing number of cases conservators have discovered abandoned compositions on paintings, illustrating artists practice of reusing a canvas or panel. The standard methods for studying the inner structure of cultural heritage (CH) artifacts are infrared reflectography and X-ray radiography, techniques that are optionally complemented with the microscopic analysis of cross-sectioned samples. These methods have limitations, but recently, a number of fundamentally new approaches for fully imaging the buildup of hidden paint layers and other complex three-dimensional (3D) substructures have been put into practice. In this Account, we discuss these developments and their recent practical application with CH artifacts. We begin with a tabular summary of 14 IR- and X-ray-based imaging methods and then continue with a discussion of each technique, illustrating CH applications with specific case studies. X-ray-based tomographic and laminographic techniques can be used to generate 3D renditions of artifacts of varying dimensions. These methods are proving invaluable for exploring inner structures, identifying the conservation state, and postulating the original manufacturing technology of metallic and other sculptures. In the analysis of paint layers, terahertz time-domain spectroscopy (THz-TDS) can highlight interfaces between layers in a stratigraphic buildup, whereas macrosopic scanning X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) has been employed to measure the distribution of pigments within these layers. This combination of innovative methods provides topographic and color information about the micrometer depth scale, allowing us to look into paintings in an entirely new manner. Over the past five years, several new variants of traditional IR- and X-ray-based imaging methods have been implemented by conservators and museums, and the first reports have begun to emerge in the primary research literature. Applying these state-of-the-art techniques in a complementary fashion affords a more comprehensive view of paintings and other artworks.