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Museum Mondays: Bridging the Worlds of Science and Art

February 19, 2016

Museums Monday: Chemistry in Art 

The Science Center and the Wright Museum of Art and Logan Museum of Anthropology may be situated on opposite sides of the campus, but a collaboration of Kristin Labby’s course Chemistry in Art and David Boffa’s art history class High Renaissance bridged the worlds of science and art. This semester, art history students and chemistry students worked side by side in the chemistry lab and in the galleries of the Wright Museum, studying select works of art, identifying period-appropriate pigments, and creating and analyzing pigments in different mediums. 

One of the works they examined was the Wright Museum’s 19th century copy of Madonna of the Chair by the Renaissance artist Raphael. During the Renaissance period, artists made use of rare minerals, such as lapis lazuli for ultramarine blue, and chemicals, such as arsenic, to create the rich yellow and orange pigments known as realgar and orpiment. Whites were made from lead. Due to their rarity and toxicity, these pigments are difficult to acquire and were gradually replaced during the 18th and 19th century, when synthetic substitutes became available. Using the Madonna of the Chair as a case study, students were able to compare traditional pigments with their modern counterparts, suspending the pigments in several mediums, including egg tempera, linseed oil, and walnut oil.

After an extensive search for materials, the students also had the opportunity to mix their own pigments using traditional ingredients and techniques. The results were weighed against the Munsell Color System, the ultimate authority on pigments. Through this workshop, the sciences came to the art museum; but the art museum also went to the Science Center in the form of having an art object analyzed for its molecular composition. The specific piece was a snuff bottle of a particular shade of blue. The analysis proved museum staff’s assumptions true—that this snuff bottle was indeed composed of lapis lazuli among other materials.   

This cross-disciplinary collaboration was funded through a Labs Across the Curriculum proposal, submitted by Assistant Professor Kristin Labby, and serves as an example of the type of project the Wright Museum continually seeks to support. Both the Wright and the Logan are ideal venues for bridging the sciences and the arts in ways that stimulate academic curiosity and challenge students to apply their critical thinking skills to areas outside of their field.

The paintings and prints used for Chemistry 370 are currently on exhibit in the Wright Museum’s South Gallery Exhibition Lab. The Wright’s Exhibition Lab can be set up to accommodate a variety of classes that wish employ art as part of a course. For more information, contact Joy Beckman or James Pearson.