Science Uncovers the Hidden Secrets of World-Famous Paintings

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The hidden secrets of some of the world's most famous paintings have been revealed thanks to a partnership between EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and the National Gallery.

Culminating in the first major exhibition of its kind in summer 2010, scientists at the Gallery have been using the latest equipment to shed new light on the history behind some of the Gallery's priceless works of art.

A state-of-the-art, EPSRC-funded gas-chromatography-mass-spectrometer (GC-MS) has helped specialists in the National Gallery's scientific department study the organic chemistry of old master paintings to understand how paintings were made and how they have changed over time. In painstaking investigations, the scientists used GC-MS to study the characterisation and composition of paint binding media, additions to paint media such as resins, and the composition of old varnishes.

The results of this work have raised complex questions of disputed authorship and authenticity, such as period copies or modern forgeries, and shed light on the original colour balance of paintings.

One example is The Virgin and Child with an Angel, which was originally attributed to the Renaissance painter-goldsmith Francesco Francia and dated about 1490. The painting's authenticity was queried in 1954 when another version appeared on the market and years of uncertainty ensued. Finally in 2009 a renewed campaign of scientific examination and comparative testing, including GC-MS testing on the paint media and varnish, proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the gallery's painting was indeed a fake that was painted in the 19th century....

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