An international team of scientists from the Rijksmuseum, the CNRS, the ESRF the European Synchrotron, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Antwerp, have discovered a rare lead compound (named lead formate) in Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch. This discovery, which is a first in the history of the scientific study of paintings, provides new insight into 17th-century painting technique and the conservation history of the masterpiece. The study is published in Angewandte Chemie – International edition.
The Night Watch, painted in 1642 and displayed today in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (The Netherlands), is one of Rembrandt’s most important masterpieces and largest work of art. In the framework of the 2019 Operation Night Watch, the largest research and conservation project ever undertaken for Rembrandt’s masterpiece, an international research team joined forces to study how the painting materials react chemically and with time.
The team of scientists combined multi-scale imaging methods in order to chemically study the materials used by Rembrandt in The Night Watch. A X-ray scanning instrument developed at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) was applied directly to the painting, while tiny fragments taken from the painting were studied with synchrotron micro X-ray probes, at the ESRF, the European Synchrotron (France), and PETRA-III facility (Germany). These two types of analyses revealed the presence of an unexpected organo-metallic compound: lead formates. This compound had never been detected before in historic paintings: “In paintings, lead formates have only been reported once in 2020, but in model paintings (mock-up, fresh paints). And there lies the surprise: not only do we discover lead formates, but we identify them in areas where there is no lead pigment, white, yellow. We think that probably they disappear fast, this is why they were not detected in old master paintings until now”, explains Victor Gonzalez, CNRS researcher at the Supramolecular and Macromolecular Photophysics and Photochemistry (PPSM) laboratory (CNRS/ENS Paris-Saclay) and first author of the paper.
Read more on the ESRF website
Image: The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642
Credit: Rijskmuseum Amsterdam