Brush Strokes and Biology: Professors Learn How Science Illuminates Art

July 25, 2011

For one week this summer, Sara Nair James ’69, professor of art history, and Lundy Pentz, associate professor of biology, will be students again.

The Summer Teachers Institute in Technical Art History (STITAH) Sara James is a week-long seminar hosted by New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in partnership with the University Art Gallery, Yale University, at the end of July. STITAH combines an arsenal of leading museum conservators, conservation scientists, and art historians with world-renowned New York City-based art collections. A select group of 15 professors are invited to immerse themselves in technical art history, through hands-on labs and lectures.

Mary Baldwin professors earned two of those coveted 15 slots and both received $1,000 stipends from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. They hope to turn what they learn into a team-taught honors seminar on art and science.

“Our plan is to consider a broad area of art and media, using theLundy Pentz prints and paintings in the art collection at Mary Baldwin,” James said. “Some of the class would be more art-history oriented, with an emphasis on how information gleaned from science can affect interpretation. The other part would be spent in the science laboratory, teaching students about pigments and what scientific instruments can reveal.”

Pentz — a cellular biologist who has long been fascinated with the biochemical and technical aspects of art — has previously collaborated with James. His lectures regarding the effects of scientific discoveries and the influence of the Black Plague on 14th-century art have added depth to her honors classes.

“I am particularly excited to have an opportunity to learn about methods for the analysis of art,” said Pentz, referring to analytical techniques such as infrared reflectography and x-radiography that he will be introduced to at the seminar. “Mary Baldwin has a remarkably well-equipped laboratory and analytical equipment, including a scanning electron microscope with an X-ray diffraction analyzer and surface-scanning spectrophotometers. I hope to use what we learn at STITAH to begin to develop a laboratory experience for future students who take our honors seminar on art and science.”

The technical aspects of art history first captured James’ attention in 1989 while studying Signorelli’s frescoes in the Cappella Nuova in Italy. There, scientific analysis was used to determine the sequence in which the works were painted, which changed the interpretation of the paintings, she said.

“I was amazed at what could be gleaned about art from science,” James said, citing other examples of how scientific analysis enhances our knowledge of works of art. “The cleaning of 15th-century Italian frescoes, and especially the 16th-century ones by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, has changed how people view the use of color in Renaissance Italy: the colors were much brighter than we previously thought. For portraits and other easel paintings, brush strokes and pigments under microscopic scrutiny tell much about authorship and pigments used in painting.”

While touring the National Portrait Gallery in London recently, James visited the conservation laboratory and saw how its microscopic and technical studies affected dating, analysis, and interpretation. She has since incorporated those insights into her art history classes and is excited about the tools she will gain from STITAH and what it will mean for future classes.

“We will be learning from the best,” James said. “The Institute of Fine Arts at NYU is the premier program for art conservation in the country and one of the top programs, if not the top, in art history.”