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Russian Arts under the Expertise: Microscopy Helps to Look Deeper into the Story of the Painting

Technical expertise aimed at assessing the value is a must for any work of art. The expertise helps to determine the authenticity of a painting and the approximate time of its creation, as well as to confirm or refute the claimed authorship, and even to describe the «destiny» and storage conditions of the painting. As of today, a microscope is necessarily used during the technical expertise. We have discussed the peculiarities of examination of works of art with Maxim Bedov, Commercial Director of the Mastera art gallery.

Tell us about your studio. What objects do you work with?

Our gallery was established in 2002. We work with paintings, mostly with those by old Russian masters. We use microscopy for detailed examination and analysis of the structure and composition of the paint, varnish, and primer layers. We analyze the aging of the components of a painting, determine the authenticity of layers belonging to a certain time period, and the composition of these layers. The main task is to determine the authenticity of the painting using the technical expertise. Authenticity determination is a multi-step process that includes the study of origin of the works of art; and we also have to take art history and technical questions into account.

What is the role of technical expertise in determining the authenticity?

It is a mandatory part helping us to get objective evidence. Of course, the technical expertise itself cannot provide a 100% guarantee of the authenticity of the object of study. Each piece of art requires an individual approach, all the parameters must be assessed. For example, a painting may be dated back to the end of the 19th century, it has undoubted origin and articles, its authenticity was confirmed by all influential art critics. But according to the results of technical expertise, its signature is not genuine. Perhaps, 30 or 70 years ago, one of the owners signed this painting with a signature similar to the artist’s one to demonstrate the authorship of this work of art. The authenticity of the painting is still not in doubt, but this fact can be clarified after the technical expertise. Such signatures are often removed to ensure that no one is misled in the future.

Moreover, sometimes a signature and a painting belong to different time periods, but both of them are original. For example, initially the artist forgot to sign the painting, and did so only when decided to present it to someone. Up to half a century may pass between these activities. If there is some kind of foreign inclusion in the painting, a microscope helps detect such interference, and you can determine how and when this might happen.

Another example: an artist leaves his/her painting unfinished, and 10 years later finishes it. Microscopy will help you to understand this situation.

Using a microscope, you can also get a lot of other useful information. For example, you can find out where the object was stored (in a museum or not), and how the owners treated it. You can even analyze the parameters of the environment (humidity, temperature, etc.) in the collection room. Even if storage conditions were just perfect, you can explore the impact of different processes on the condition of the art object.

Can you tell us about this microscope and its configuration? Why has it been chosen?

We have been working with various systems over the years, so we have specific requirements for the configuration of the microscope. As a result, the ZEISS SteREO Discovery v. 8 stereo microscope was chosen.

One of the key parameters is the widest overlapping zoom range. This is important because we analyze a very wide range of objects, even in the same painting. We start with a small 5 or 10 zoom ratio to ensure that the layers belong to the same time period, we also analyze the composition of layers and check whether there are any visible foreign inclusions. Finally, we conduct a detailed analysis of the texture and structure of the pigment, and this requires a higher zoom ratio. Sometimes we need to look inside the craquelure to determine its age and make sure that it is in harmony with lacquer coating. We also check whether the lacquer coating penetrates the craquelure, and if so, when it was applied, and so on. We use the camera mainly when it is obvious that the work of art is not genuine, and we need to illustrate and document all the facts.

It is important that the entire structure is tough enough as any vibrations can have a significant impact at high zoom ratios. And this stand is ideal for our purposes. It allows us to work with large paintings thanks to an extra arm, but at the same time it is quite tough and provides the possibility to use necessary zoom ratios. The structure is compact and provides a high degree of mobility.

What is the painting you are working on now?

This is a painting by Abram Arkhipov that was created in last decade of the 19th century. The painting is certainly genuine. Some fundamentally important components that are used to determine the authenticity are clearly visible in it. The artist put his signature on the dried layer of paint. The signature’s pigment lies directly on the layer of paint. After many years, the painting was covered with lacquer that is now yellowed and contains particles of dirt and dust, the surface of the lacquer became whitish or troubled in some places. If 90 years ago craquelure appeared on the surface, then, of course, the dust particles were penetrating into rattles and mixing with the lacquer. Subsequently, there was at least one restoration when these contaminants were removed. The aging across the surface of the painting is absolutely natural: aging was uniform. With an exception for minor modern toning, there were no notable interventions, neither today, nor half a century ago. We can conclude that the painting was growing old naturally throughout its entire depth. We can analyze the aging of the primer layer, which is fully consistent with the extent and principles of aging of the layer of paint. Thus, we can conclude that the whole painting belongs to the same time period and the same authorship. All these special aspects are easily visible under a microscope.

Please tell about some non-genuine painting. How did you identify the fake?

There are so many different kinds of falsification. The easiest and most understandable method: fraudsters take an old picture and sign it with another name. If this was the case one or ten years ago, then it is not difficult to reveal it. But if 70 or 100 years have passed, the task becomes much more difficult. The situation may also be complicated if the forgers were the real masters of their craft. The signature can be covered with lacquer, the lacquer itself can be grown old with the help of ultraviolet light, and the imitated craquelure can be quite realistic. A careful study allows us to reveal such foreign inclusions anyway.

There are cases where the signature is perfect and fully matches the entire layer of paint (the whole «pie» including the canvas and primer), but then it turns out that the entire layer of paint or a part thereof that relates to the signature was faked. You can identify a fake if you carefully analyze the entire surface of the painting, and microscopy will help you to do this.

What is the minimum time period between the creation of a painting and the intervention that can be detected?

The aging process begins immediately and is permanent. The painting immediately begins to age, and certain changes occur. I encountered a case when a painting was created for an exhibition in 1920, but had not been signed in due time. In 1927, the artist signed his name and gave the painting as a gift. This fact was mentioned in the letters. Thus, only 7 years had passed, but it was obvious that the signature was not made simultaneously with the painting, but still quite a long time ago.

Please tell us about your plans for the further development of technologies in your laboratory.

The microscope that we use now fully meets the requirements of the laboratory. It would be interesting to experiment with lighter and luminescence in the ultraviolet or infrared range under the microscope. Ultraviolet range allows us to reveal any recent interventions and determine their character, as some paint pigments have a certain characteristic luminescence. Infrared range provides a glimpse into deeper fine pigments and allows us to analyze the preparatory drawing, if any.

Of course, our microscope is not used very often, but it is a very important element of our activities. The case of each painting is unique. The entire life cycle of a painting is similar to the life of a man who grows old, gets sick, and looks a certain way at a certain age. I think this is a very accurate analogy. Any observation is an interpretation, so that even those professionals who have extensive experience and a degree in the field of art history, have to accumulate a certain knowledge base so that they can understand and be aware of all these processes when working with the microscope.