Brown Bag Lecture: “The Analysis of Organic Colorants in Art Objects: Case Studies from the Metropolitan Museum of Art”

posted on 05 Jan 2016 16:40 by sumolsen
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By Summer Olsen and Catherine Stergar
On Monday, December 7th, Nobuko Shibayama gave a Brown Bag Lecture at Bard Graduate Center entitled “The Analysis of Organic Colorants in Art Objects: Case Studies from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Shibayama is an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Scientific Research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Scientists in the Department of Scientific Research work collaboratively with the Conservation and Curatorial Departments at the Met on many projects involving the museum’s diverse object collection and objects on loan from other institutions for exhibitions. The department, which opened in 2004, specializes in the identification of materials and analysis of their chemical composition. They also work toward advancing best practices by finding scientific solutions for storage and conservation issues.

Shibayama’s research focuses on studying and identifying organic colorants and dyes employed in art objects. She presented three case studies to illuminate the department’s work in researching organic dyes and colorants. Identifying the composition of these dyes and colorants enabled her to estimate when and where art objects originated.

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Her first case study was the Flemish tapestry from the sixteenth century entitled Gluttony by Pieter Coecke van Aelst comprised of wool, silk, and silver gilt thread. The researchers carried out a study on the tapestry to confirm that it was a Coecke van Aelst original and not a nineteenth-century reproduction as they wished to display it in the October 2014-January 2015 exhibition “Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry.” Shibayama took samples of fibers and used scientific testing techniques, like high-performance liquid chromatography in conjunction with a photodiode array detector, to collect data that revealed specific information pertaining to the identity of the dyes used to color the different sections of the tapestry. Her analysis revealed that many of the tapestry fibers were dyed with organic dyes that are typical of the sixteenth century in Europe. However, she discovered some synthetic dyes common in the nineteenth century from fiber samples in the borders of the piece. Therefore, the study concluded that the tapestry was a made in the mid sixteenth century with some sections of restoration in the Nineteenth century. See her article about the project co-Authored with Federico Carò, Giulia Chiostrini, and Elizabeth Cleland here.

The second case study demonstrated how scientific analysis and research can aid museum professionals in attributing textiles to specific makers. Their main goal was to see if dye composition could reveal key differences in the production of Safavid versus Mughal velvets from the Sixteenth to Eighteenth centuries. Shibayama employed the same testing techniques used for the Gluttony tapestry project to analyze samples of silk pile from fifteen Safavid velvets and six Mughal velvets. She found both overlap in the use of dyes between the Safavid and Mughal samples and some differences in colorants. She concluded that dyes could aid in distinguishing the velvets’ origins but not provide a definitive attribution.

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Her third case study was the investigation of dyed rabbit hair in a tapestry from the Sixteenth or Seventeenth century in the Cooper Hewitt’s collection for the 2004 exhibition “The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830.” The curators hoped to determine if the tapestry had a Mexican or Peruvian origin through examination of the colorants used to dye its fibers. Shibayama took fiber samples and analyzed them using high-performance liquid chromatography in conjunction with a photodiode array detector. The fiber samples were further analyzed at the National Gallery of Art with liquid chromatography/ mass spectrometry to gain more clarification about the dye composition. This helped reveal the species of the plant used to make yellow and green dyes. These dyes had been documented in historic literature but never identified before in historic tapestries. Identifying the dyes helped the researchers conclude that the tapestry was likely not Peruvian but Mexican in origin. For more information see the project’s website here.

To learn more about the Scientific Research Department and to see some of their latest research, visit their website here.

Summer Olsen and Catherine Stergar are M.A. candidates at Bard Graduate Center.

Images:

Image 1: Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Gluttony,Between ca. 1550 and 1560. Wool, silk, silver-gilt thread. H. 153 x W. 267 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 57.62

Image 2: Tapestry band. Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (NY). Acc.no. 1902-1-374. Photo: B. Schwarz

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