Synchrotron reveals important information about famous sculpture by Paul Gauguin

Analysis carried out by Conservation Scientist Dr. Eric Henderson at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan allowed National Gallery of Canada’s (NGC) Chief Conservator Doris Couture-Rigert to conclude a crucial aspect of her research on an important sculpture by Gauguin in the museum’s collection.

Gauguin sculpture, which looks like man's face carved into wood.
Portrait of Meijer de Haan by Paul Gauguin. Photo credit below. 

Gauguin was one of the 19th century’s most influential artists and the NGC is currently featuring his works in an exhibition called Gauguin: Portraits. Gauguin’s Portrait of Meijer de Haan is one of the centerpieces of the exhibition and has been the subject of intense technical research carried out by Couture-Rigert over the last four years.

To support this research, paint and pigment analyses were performed in several phases by conservation scientists in the Conservation Science Division at the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI). As part of these analyses, CCI Conservation Scientist Dr. Henderson and his colleagues identified beeswax in paint samples from the sculpture which raised the question of its function within the paint.

There were two possible explanations, said Henderson. One theory was that the wax indicated the artist used encaustic paint (heated beeswax to which coloured pigments are added). The second, more likely answer, is that the wax was applied as a coating over the paint. In fact, Gauguin often advocated for the application of a wax-based coating on his works.

To elaborate upon the initial CCI findings, Henderson conducted Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) mapping of paint cross-sections at the Mid-IR beamline at the CLS in February. This technique involves plotting the integrated absorbance of characteristic vibrational bands of select materials as a function of position to obtain their spatial distribution across the cross-sections.

The synchrotron results confirmed that the beeswax was applied as a coating over the paint, said Henderson, who is a specialist in material analyses of museum and cultural heritage objects. The data also showed that the wax had infiltrated the upper layer of paint, and this helped explain an observation by Couture-Rigert of a darker, more saturated layer of paint at the surface. As well, the origin of the beeswax in the paint as a result of infiltration of the wax coating and the finding of protein in the paint supported analysis results, suggesting that Gauguin used protein-based distemper paint on the sculpture.

Researcher using science equipment.
Henderson at the CLS. 

Some of the conclusions of the FTIR mapping experiments performed at the CLS, many of CCI’s analytical results, and other NGC research findings are presented in the exhibition in a dedicated space.  

For Henderson, the availability of the synchrotron bodes well for advancing conservation science. “This is a great example of the capabilities of analytical techniques and analytical sciences to explain and document heritage works, and we are definitely exploring other possibilities,” he said.

As for Couture-Rigert, the work performed at the synchrotron provided the much-needed confirmation of the exact location and level of penetration of the wax within the paint layer in order to draw the final conclusions.

The Gauguin: Portraits exhibit, including the Portrait of Meijer de Haan sculpture, can be seen at the National Gallery of Canada until September 8, 2019.

To learn more about the exhibit click here (English) or here (French). For more information about this research, click here (English) or here (French). 

Written by Colleen MacPherson. Edited by Victoria Schramm and Sandra Ribeiro.

For more information, contact:

Victoria Schramm
Communications Coordinator
Canadian Light Source

Credit for photograph of Portrait of Meijer de Haan:

Paul Gauguin
Portrait of Meijer de Haan, c. 1889-1890
Waxed distemper paint and metallic oil paint on oak, 58.4 x 29.8 x 22.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo: NGC
Paul Gauguin
Portrait de Meijer de Haan, v. 1889-1890
Peinture à la détrempe, cirée et peinture à l’huile métallique sur chêne, 58.4 x 29.8 x 22.8cm
Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa
Photo: MBAC
Self-portrait of Paul Gauguin at top of page:
This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less. U.S. work public domain: in the U.S. for unspecified reason but presumably because it was published in the U.S. before 1924.

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