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Science & Art: Hand-in-Hand

What’s the difference between science and art? In the former, if a discovery isn’t made by one person, if it’s important, it will surely be made by another. In art, a work not created by an artist will likely never exist at all.

But all scientists know there is a certain art to their work, and science in return makes a contribution to art itself. The latter is the subject of an intriguing exhibit at the National Gallery in London. It’s called Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries and runs through September 12.

Chemical analysis, molecular spectroscopy, and imaging techniques can all be used to aid in verification of the authenticity of a work of art. Close Examination is a masterfully told story of about 40 works whose genuineness was probed by scientific analysis. For example, a painting believed to be of 15th-century origin was shown by chemical analysis to contain pigments not available until much later. Obviously, a forgery.

Another work, possibly painted by Raphael, was shown by infrared reflectometry to have an underdrawing consistent with his style, and chemical analysis revealed the distinctive pigment palette used by this iconic artist.

It is plain that science can refute attribution but isn’t capable of indisputably proving that a work is genuine. Only humans can do that, aided by both science and artistic judgment--a beauteous state of affairs.

Posted In: Education | History

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