by Martin Willis, Gemr Community Curator
60 Years of Waiting Proves Worthwhile
A painting purchased in the 1950s by Finland’s Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation was never proven to be by Claude Monet (1840-1926) as it was unsigned, or at least appeared to be. Monet’s signature was recently found on the piece under a layer of paint. The work was created near Monet’s home in Giverny, France and has been titled: “A Haystack in the Evening Sun“ (1892).
I had the opportunity to view a Monet exhibition several years ago in Boston, and there is nothing like seeing the work in person. The pieces that struck me the most were, his lily pad paintings and his haystack paintings, both of which can sell for in excess of $10 million.
How it Was Discovered
The technology department researchers at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä used XRF while examining the painting. XRF (X-ray fluorescence) is a non-destructive technique that maps chemical elements, consequently pigments by bombarding the artwork with x-rays so powerful that they cause atoms in the picture’s layers to emit ‘florescent’ x-rays of their own.
A hyperspectral camera took an image of 256 different wavelengths simultaneously in the near-infrared region to examine the composition of the work and allowed researchers to see separate paint layers including a previous signature – verifying that the painting was by Monet.
As dry as this may sound, it must have been a eureka moment to actually see the signature come to life. Besides the value, the piece is now fully documented as part of Monet’s oeuvre.
Why Signed Under a Layer of Paint?
In my research, I cannot find any mentions of why there was a layer of paint over the signature. Monet initially painted his pieces out of doors, yet it is known that he reworked them for years in his studio. I remember reading an article decades ago that Monet never considered his paintings finished. In the same article it mentioned that he was once kicked out of a museum and seen at some of his exhibitions with paint & brush in hand, attempting to rework his pieces just one more time. My speculation is, perhaps his finish-phobia made him change the foreground and paint over his signature. He would not be the first artist to do that, and I don’t know if that is true or not, but it makes for a good story.
There are a lot of technological techniques in the world today to forensically discover the history of pieces, and you can read some of the details here.
I liken these new technologies to DNA research in criminal cases. There are a number of cold cases cracked as to who committed the crime as well as wrongful convictions overturned and it is all because recent technology and proven science of the truth.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with Martin Kemp who was featured as the researcher of a Leonardo da Vinci portrait on PBS Nova’s “Mystery of a Masterpiece” (see full video below). In this case, French inventor, Pascal Cotte used a multi-million pixel camera to virtually see through the painting down to the sketch markings. This played a big role in identifying the work. It is a fascinating video, and I encourage you to watch it. So sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch a great detective story, where forensic technology uncovers who committed the art!
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