Some of Rembrandt’s masterpieces are at the ESRF for some days, albeit only in minuscule form. The goal: to unveil the secrets of the artist’s white pigment.
Seven medical students surround a dead body while they attentively look at how the doctor is dissecting the deceased. The scene is set in a dark and gloomy environment, where even the faces of the characters show a grey tinge. Strangely, the only light in the scene is that coming from their white collars and the white sheet that partially covers the body. The vivid white creates a perplexing light-reflecting effect. Welcome to painting The anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a piece of art displaying the baffling technique of the impasto, of which Rembrandt, its author, was a master.
Impasto is thick paint laid on the canvas in an amount that makes it stand from the surface. The relief of impasto increases the perceptibility of the paint by increasing its light-reflecting textural properties. Scientists know that Rembrandt achieved the impasto effect by using materials traditionally available on the 17th century Dutch colour market, namely the lead white pigment (mix of hydrocerussite Pb3(CO3)2.(OH)2 and cerussite PbCO3), chalk (calcite CaCO3) and organic mediums (mainly linseed oil). The precise recipe he used is, however, still unknown.