Bright Light: Microspectrofluorimetry for the Characterization of Lake Pigments and Dyes in Works of Art

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Color is an important component in the perception of beauty and in an artist's original intent when creating a work. Better conservation of our cultural heritage requires detailed knowledge of artwork materials and the complex evolution they have endured over time. Organic dyes have been used from ancient times, and their characterization is a challenge that has been successfully addressed over the past few years by the development of advanced techniques, such as microspectrofluorimetry. In this Account, we describe the application of microspectrofluorimetry to the study of medieval illuminations, paint cross sections, millenary textiles, and wall paintings. In our research into color in medieval Portuguese illuminations, we chose to emphasize the importance of the experimental design and the use of microspectrofluorimetry in the context of other analytical techniques, such as microFTIR, microRaman, and micro-X-ray fluorescence (microXRE). Within this framework, we were able to unveil the full complexity of a medieval colorant and to address issues not yet explored, such as the influence of Arab, Jewish, and Christian cultures on the production and underlying technology of Portuguese illuminations. The analysis of individual pigment particles or aggregates (by excitation with an 8 mu m diameter spot) in paint cross sections from works by Vincent van Gogh and Lucien Pissarro highlights the technique's advantage of high spatial resolution. Its high spectral resolution proved to be useful not only for better characterizing the dyes used to color Andean textiles but also for detecting mixtures of relevant chromophores; the emission signals for the reds in Paracas and Nasca textiles were shown to be due to the presence of purpurin and pseudopurpurin. Finally, the complexity of the study of yellow dyes and the importance of accurate historical reproductions is addressed in a study of Asian organic colorants on historic Chinese wall paintings. Microspectrofluorimetry offers high sensitivity, selectivity, fast data acquisition, good spatial resolution, and the possibility of in-depth profiling. It has proved to be an invaluable analytical tool in identifying dyes and lake pigments in works of art. As Saint-Exupery's protagonist said in Le Petit Prince, "L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux," or "What is essential is invisible to the eye"-but it may be unveiled with kind love, a prepared mind, and a little help from microspectrofluorimetry.
Original languageUnknown
Pages (from-to)857-866
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010

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