Art Science Intersections

“Art | Science Intersections: More than Meets the Eye” (ARTH 4605/6605) was the fourth semester-long course offered at the Johnson Museum as part of a Museum initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

A collaboration between the Museum, the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies, the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), the Spring 2015 seminar was cotaught by Andrew C. Weislogel, Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47 Curator, Earlier European and American Art; Lisa Pincus, visiting assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies; C. Richard Johnson, Jr., the Geoffrey S. M. Hedrick Senior Professor of Engineering in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Arthur Woll, senior research scientist at CHESS; and Sturt Manning, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Classical Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and director of the Cornell Tree-Ring Laboratory.

This interdisciplinary seminar capitalized on an extraordinary exhibition of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings from a private collection and the initiative’s ongoing approach to object study using both art-historical and scientific, data-driven modes of investigation. Both methods treat material culture: the visible surface of the artwork and its underlying materials (support, ground, pigments). Within the context of early modern painting and works on paper, and drawing on Cornell’s exceptional resources and key experts, the course allowed students to learn various technical methods, including weave matching in historic canvases, pattern matching in historic papers, microscopic pigment analysis, and the dating of painting panels through dendrochronology. X-ray fluorescence mapping at CHESS even unveiled hidden images in one of the Leiden paintings. Students also learned more accessible methods such as Reflectance Transformation Imaging, which allows close looking at objects’ surface texture.

The course was enhanced by a series of visits by experts in the field who worked with students in “Art | Science Intersections” and gave free public lectures. The scholars included Angela Campbell, assistant paper conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Dominique N. Surh, curator and director of research of the Leiden Collection; John Twilley, an experienced conservation scientist who consults with the Leiden Collection; and Jennifer Mass, PhD ’95, senior conservation scientist at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. The class also visited West Lake Conservators in Skaneateles, a longstanding local practice, and gained a first-hand appreciation for conservators’ materials, techniques, and teamwork. Overall, the course raised awareness of the differing meanings of connoisseurship, the varied backgrounds of professionals who engage in technical investigation of art history, and the types of questions artworks raise to drive their collaborations.

Spring 2015 Art | Science Intersections students
Rashmi Gajare ’16, historic preservation
Virginia Johnson ’16, chemistry
Alison McCann, PhD candidate, history of art
Rachel Mochon ’16, chemistry and College Scholar
Chinelo Onyilofor ’15, chemistry and history of art
Louisa Smieska, PhD candidate, chemistry and chemical biology
Christian Waibel ’17, materials science and engineering

This course, exhibition, and related scholar visits was supported in part by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and through the generosity of Helen-Mae and Seymour R. Askin, Jr. ’47, and of Joseph W. Simon ’80 and Ernest F. Steiner ’63 in honor of Vera C. Simon ’55.

Class member Louisa Smieska, a former Post-Doc at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), explains how chemistry and art brought her to become a synchrotron scientist in this special video.