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Rembrandt’s ‘Secret Ingredient’ To His Art’s Vividness Discovered By Scientists
By Mikelle Leow, 21 Jan 2019
Image via Alexander Tolstykh / Shutterstock.com
You could say Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, now known simply as Rembrandt, pioneered the group selfie. Back in his day, portrait artists typically captured their subjects standing or sitting in allocated positions, but the 17th-century artist incorporated movement in his paintings.
However, it wasn’t just the use of motion that made his masterpieces stand out.
The man continues to be recognized for his impasto technique, which involves thick layers of painting on a surface that are dense enough for brushstrokes to come through. When dry, the paint brings texture, making it look as if certain areas are popping out of a canvas. You’ve seen this aesthetic in 20th-century works from artists like Vincent van Gogh.
A team of scientists led by Victor Gonzalez say they have uncovered the secret “ingredient” to Rembrandt’s vibrant impasto style. In a research paper published in scientific journal Angewandte Chemie, the researchers detail they have discovered a rare substance called plumbonacrite in the Dutch artist’s creations.
Until that end, the compound had only been identified in 20th-century artworks, including one from Vincent van Gogh, the scientists describe. Gonzalez says that the discovery of the compound was unexpected as it was “so unusual in Old Masters’ paintings.”
Even more notably, it seems that the existence of the substance wasn’t accidental—as were the fingerprints recently found on one of Rembrandt’s paintings—but “the result of an intended synthesis.” Rembrandt seemingly sourced ingredients available in the 1600s to deliberately create impasto textures.
To conduct the analysis, the team extracted small paint samples—each measuring a wee 0.1 millimeters in size—from three Rembrandt artworks: The Portrait of Marten Soolmans (1634) from the Rijksmuseum; Bathsheba (1654) from the Louvre; Susanna (1636) from the Mauritshuis in the Hague.
Through advanced technology from the European Synchrotron lab in Grenoble, France, the researchers identified the chemicals present in the paint samples using radiation x-rays.
“Based on historical texts, we believe that Rembrandt added lead oxide, or litharge, to the oil in this purpose, turning the mixture into a paste-like paint,” art conservation expert Marine Cotte concludes.
This revelation is essential not only for understanding Rembrandt’s paintings, but could also be vital for prolonging the lifespans of his work.
His iconic The Night Watch piece is all primed for restoration that will be broadcasted online for free, but the entire process is expected to take years. The discovery of this substance could shorten the time it will take to complete the project.
The Portrait of Marten Soolmans (1634) Image by the Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Susanna (1636) Image by the Mauritshuis via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
[via Science Daily and Artnet, images via various sources]
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