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Near-Infrared Light Tests Paintings’ Ability to Travel

Salvador Dalí

Salvador Dalí (Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí)

A collaboration of British, Spanish, and Slovenian chemistry researchers and fine art conservation specialists devised a technique adapted from the life sciences to test the ability of paintings to withstand the rigors of travel without damaging the works of art. The team led by Matija Strlic of the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London describes its findings online, appearing yesterday in an advance issue of the journal Analytical Methods (free registration required).

The methods developed by the research team — from Universitat de Barcelona, University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, British Library, Fundació (Foundation) Gala-Salvador Dalí in Spain, and Birkbeck College at University of London — harnesses near-infrared spectroscopy to examine the composition of the canvas and determine if it is strong enough to be packed and shipped for a traveling exhibit. The study is an outgrowth of a Ph.D. dissertation by first author Marta Oriola of Universitat de Barcelona.

Near-infrared spectroscopy shines light in the near-infrared spectrum on a target and measures the waves absorbed and reflected by the target, aided by multivariate statistical tools, to determine the target’s chemical content. The technique is used in the life sciences, especially for non-invasive tests such as measuring glucose levels in people with diabetes without drawing blood samples. The ability to non-invasively determine if a work of art is fit to travel is a much more desirable solution for museum curators, artists, and art lovers than testing a physical sample removed from the painting, no matter how small.

In this study, the team used near-infrared spectroscopy to measure the pH (acidity or basicity) levels and degree of polymerization of the cellulose in the canvas fibers of 12 paintings by surrealist painter Salvador Dalí in the Gala-Salvador Dalí collection. Degree of polymerization is an indicator of the strength of the fiber. The test and subsequent statistical analysis also indicates the type of fiber in the canvas, such as cotton, linen, or hemp.

In the study, the researchers compared their results to a reference collection of 199 historical canvas samples, where physical samples were extracted, as well as a system developed by an expert panel of determining the robustness of the paintings based on the chemical composition of the canvasses. Using the near-infrared system, the 12 paintings in the collection were found to be in good enough condition for shipping.

The researchers also found that some of Dali’s early works were painted on low-quality cotton canvasses, an important factor in conservation efforts that could also affect their condition for future traveling exhibits.

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