By Daniel Aloi, Cornell Chronicle

Rachel Mochon ’16 looks at Gerrit Dou’s “Cat Crouching on the Ledge of an Artist’s Atelier” through a binocular microscope, which allows viewing of overlapping areas of brushwork and fine details.

Particle accelerators, X-ray fluorescence and other scientific means are adding to art historians’, curators’ and conservators’ specialized knowledge by extending what can be seen in a work of art.

Looking at what lies beneath the surface of paintings, Cornell scientists, scholars and curators using image processing tools shared their expertise and methodologies in the course “Art|Science Intersections: More Than Meets the Eye.”

The course was the fourth in a series, “Connecting Research With Practice,” an initiative at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Co-instructors Lisa Pincus, visiting assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, and Andrew Weislogel, the museum’s Seymour R. Askin Jr. ’47 Curator of Earlier European and American Art, used as source material works on loan to the museum for the exhibition “An Eye for Detail: Dutch Painting from the Leiden Collection,” on display through June 21; and prints and drawings by Rembrandt and other artists in the museum’s collection.

“We were really interested in the parallels between the 17th century and today—the Dutch were also interested in science,” Weislogel said. “We wanted students to come away with the idea that technical art history is not a 20th-century invention.”

Weislogel and Pincus organized the exhibition with assistance from Leiden Collection curator Dominique Surh, who also lectured in the course. Having access to 12 paintings from an important private collection of Dutch art “in all of their material presence” was invaluable, Pincus said.

The course emphasized the nature of materials and a “focus on works of art as objects and not images on a screen. It’s pigments on canvas,” Weislogel said. “It’s about looking first, and understanding artworks as objects that have their own histories and illnesses and cures.”

Pincus said, “I was thinking of pictures more or less as a stable datum—they are really organic objects that keep changing, in response to atmospheric pollution, light, humidity.

“What lies beneath the surface has always been a source of intense fascination to the Dutch, [who were] deeply involved in evidence of the eyes and vision and anything that could extend that experience,” such as microscopes, telescopes and glasses, she said. “The evidence of the eyes was entering a phase of greater and greater trust. Whole worlds that nobody had previously seen were open to view.”

Guest lecturers collaborating on the course included C. Richard Johnson in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Arthur Woll, senior research associate at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS); Sturt Manning from the Wiener Dendrochronology Lab, and conservation scientist Jennifer Mass, Ph.D. ’95, of the Winterthur Museum.

“I felt like I was a student in the class, with a front-row seat to these people’s expertise,” Weislogel said.

Manning led a workshop on dating 17th-century panel paintings, and Johnson demonstrated image-processing tools. A technical examination at CHESS revealed several painted-over iterations of Gerrit Dou’s 1657 painting “Cat Crouching on the Ledge of an Artist’s Atelier.”

“The cat was a constant,” Pincus said. “It never changed. It says to me that the artist was working out and refining an idea.”

Johnson has done extensive research in computational art history, analyzing canvases painted by Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt to match weaves and thread counts, gathering data used to date and authenticate artworks.

“A lot of these imaging methods tell you more about the object than you can see,” Johnson said. “The main thing art historians want to know is, to understand an artist’s career, they need an exact timeline and no mistakes.”

Johnson consults on technical projects with museums worldwide, teaches in graduate art conservation programs and is writing an interdisciplinary textbook.

“I like to bring organized technical science thinking and blend it with the historic humanistic approach,” he said. “I don’t want to see it as two separate cultures. I believe fully in going with both strategies.”

“This course gave us the chance to not only participate in cutting-edge research in technical art history, but also challenged us to interpret what we found for a non-technical audience,” said Louisa Smieska, a doctoral candidate in the field of chemistry who majored in fine arts as an undergraduate. In pursuit of “combining those interests in a career,” she has taken three of the Mellon courses.

“I really love research at this interface of art, science, engineering, history and museum studies,” Smieska said. “It’s the essence of interdisciplinary study, and it's an incredibly complex and rewarding field.”