Multi-disciplinary team uncovers secrets in the world of fine art

 The various types of lighting used to examine The Drinker/The Bitter Draught (Workshop of Adriaen Brouwer): from left, ultra-violet, visible light and infrared reflectography: Dendrochronologist Peter Klein examines the panel. MCMASTER MUSEUM OF ART, MCMASTER UNIVERSITY

The various types of lighting used to examine The Drinker/The Bitter Draught (Workshop of Adriaen Brouwer): from left, ultra-violet, visible light and infrared reflectography: Dendrochronologist Peter Klein examines the panel. MCMASTER MUSEUM OF ART, MCMASTER UNIVERSITY

Dr. Michael D. Noseworthy, professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-director of the McMaster School of Biomedical Engineering, has always loved art. He has visited some of the great art galleries of the world, where he marvelled at the talent, imagination and creativity of the artists. But he never imagined he would be part of a multi-disciplinary team delving into the material condition of nine historical paintings, including a Van Gogh.

Dr. Noseworthy, who was tapped for his biomedical skills in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and image processing, joined an international team of nearly 30 scientists, physicists, conservators and art historians to investigate the paintings from the McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) collection.

“I’ve always loved art, but to find myself in the art museum as part of a research team, as a scientist, was just thrilling,” he says.

The project was initiated by Brandi Lee MacDonald, then a research associate in the Department of Medical Physics and Applied Radiation Sciences at McMaster. As an expert in pigment analysis, she saw the potential to use sophisticated, yet non-invasive techniques, statistical information and comparative analysis to answer important questions about significant pieces of art.
For each piece, researchers set out to answer several questions centred on painting techniques and materials, attribution, condition and stability.  

Dr. Noseworthy says a friend and colleague in Portugal, Dr. Mario Forjaz Secca, who is a medical physics and engineering professor teaching a course on the Physics of Art Restoration, first introduced him to the idea of collaborating on art-related projects.

“Until then, I never thought I could be involved. I started reading up about physical scientists and art restoration and realized I could have a place in fine arts,” he says.

When the opportunity came to join the team of researchers working on the project that would eventually result in the exhibit, The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings, he jumped at it.

“They needed someone to co-register the different modalities – the X-ray versus infrared versus ultra violet – because the images wouldn’t be the right scale, or they would be rotated differently,” he says.

This challenge was nothing new to Dr. Noseworthy, whose team often merges 3D medical imaging data from ultrasound or CT scans with those from MRI scans to create a more informative and rich three-dimensional work space with higher geometric accuracy, so treatment can be better monitored or fine tuned.

“Such a range of disciplines came together on this project, people who never normally find themselves working together – physicists, engineers, humanities and fine art professors. Art pulled us all into the same room with a common goal,” he says.

As a proponent of STEAM education, Dr. Noseworthy says The Unvarnished Truth project is an example of a successful collaboration between the sciences and the arts.

“McMaster has a world-class engineering faculty where graduates are being taught to think not only broadly but also as part of multi-disciplinary teams tackling a range of problems from climate change to transport to discovering the secrets of historical art created hundreds of years ago. What we want to show is that the skills and learning of engineers can be applied to just about any challenge,” says Dr. Noseworthy.

As it turns out, in the Van Gogh painting, Untitled, Still Life: Ginger Pot with Onions, researchers confirmed the presence of a painting underneath that may have been discarded or scraped down. Van Gogh is known to have recycled canvases for financial reasons, and is thought to have abandoned an earlier composition in this painting.

Following his work on The Unvarnished Truth project, Dr. Noseworthy has continued to be involved with art projects and is now a member of the McMaster Museum of Art Advisory Board.
“It’s opened up a whole new world for me. As an engineer, it’s something I never imagined I would have the opportunity to do.”

Learn more about how McMaster researchers are creating a Brighter World at brighterworld.mcmaster.ca.

To find out more about The Unvarnished Truth, visit: theunvarnishedtruth.mcmaster.ca.

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