The Metropolitan Museum of Art 大都會藝術博物館

Science and Art: The Colors of East Asian Paintings

East Asian painters and printmakers have achieved a rich visual language within the constraints of a very simple, almost minimalist technique. A relatively narrow range of pigments thinly bound in hide glue or dispersed in starch paste afforded artists in China, Korea, Japan, and the Himalayan plateau surprisingly evocative possibilities in scrolls, screens, album drawings and prints.

The complexity of painterly effects achieved by East Asian atists has often been overlooked in the West, and the extent to which color and gloss are manipulated through pigment selection, shading, and overlying with transparent or colored glazes has only been brought to light in recent studies. Much in the same way, the variety of natural and synthetic inorganic and organic pigments, and their history of mining, manufacture, and trade over China and the neighboring regions is not sufficiently known.

Despite the enormous importance of Chinese art over the centuries, the pigments of Chinese, paintings have not been studied in the West to the same extent as those of Japanese paintings or Himalayan thangkas. This situation should clearly be addressed, as China played a key role in developing and disseminating most of the traditional East Asian pictorial forms, as well as paintings materials. In fact, the development of painting techniques in the regions around China cannot be understood without looking in detail at the material evidence presented by Chinese paintings.

This talk will attempt to stimulate discussion and new research in Chinese paintings materials by presenting the results of scientific examinations of paintings and prints in private and public collections in the United States carried out over the last fifteen years. Case studies presented will range from the identification of lac dye on a Qing painting by Qian Wicheng, to the manipulation of gloss in a 15th century Tibetan thangka, from K?rin's technical choices in Irises at Yatsuhashi, to Hokusai's experiments with Prussian blue in his paintings, from the sophisticate use of indigo and Prussian blue mixtures in the Nishimuraya printed Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, to the synthetic dye revolution in Meiji prints.

The results presented were obtained by using a combination of non-destructive and microanalytical techniques such as fiber optics reflectance spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, hyperspectral imaging, Raman spectroscopy, and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy.

It is hoped that this project will start a much needed dialogue between Chinese and US scientists to share analytical results and compare respective findings, in the interest of enriching the art historical and conservation fields with the latest scientific developments.