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Scientists rediscover lost techniques of master post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin

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Computer scientists working alongside art conservators have discovered how a famous French post-Impressionist created some of his most complex graphic works.

During a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in San Jose yesterday, researchers from Northwestern University and curators from the Art Institute of Chicago demonstrated how Paul Gauguin “formed, layered and re-used imagery to make 19 unique graphic works,” according to the press release.

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The method of composition of these 19 works had long puzzled scholars, but as a video produced by Northwestern University demonstrates, determining how Gauguin produced these experimental prints required only a camera, a simple light bulb, and an enterprising computer scientist.

In the presentation, Northwestern computer scientist Oliver S. Cossairt discussed how he and his team took photographs of Gauguin’s “Nativity” using different wavelengths of light shining from different directions onto the print in order to determine how the print was made.

“To measure the 3-D surface of the prints, we used some very accessible techniques that can be used by art conservators and historians around the world to analyze artworks,” Cossairt said. “In applying these techniques to Gauguin’s work, we came up with some interesting answers to questions about what his printing process was.”

“The technique allows us to peel away the print’s color and look at the surface structure only,” Cossairt said. “For each image, we know the angle of the lighting and the brightness of each pixel and from that we can calculate the unknown — the surface structure.”

An analysis of that surface structure revealed that Gauguin produced the print’s white lines “on a flat surface [indicating] those lines were not produced using a relief process but rather a transfer process, where Gauguin drew on an inked surface, removing ink, and those empty lines were transferred to his print.”

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The ink of the black lines, however, “sits atop ridges in the paper, indicating a monotype transfer process was used. Gauguin would have placed his paper on an inked surface and then drawn on the back of the paper, causing ink to be transferred to the paper where pressure from the artist’s pencil was applied.”

Harriet Stratis, senior research conservator at the Art Institute, said that “[w]e never would have figured this out without Northwestern, its scientists and technology, because you don’t see the evidence under the microscope.”

“You can’t tell the paper is just flat. The Northwestern team’s lighting and imaging techniques show there is no deformation in the paper where the un-inked lines are, which blew me away,” she added. “Gauguin probably was doing these kinds of prints for five years, so this research puts a whole body of work together.”

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“The evidence points to a completely different artistic approach by Gauguin.”

The senior scientist at the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, Mark Walton, agreed, saying that “[b]y studying this one unique piece, ‘Nativity,’ we are developing a deeper understanding of Gauguin’s highly experimental printmaking and transfer techniques that we can apply to his other works, including his paintings.”

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Watch the video produced by Northwestern University below via YouTube.


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