Detective Work: An interdisciplinary dive into the history of American art

Michael Martin Garrett
May 21, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Maggie Davis doesn’t look like a detective. She doesn’t wear a trenchcoat, a fedora or carry a magnifying glass. But she’s solving a mystery that dates back to the early years of the United States and the birth of the American artistic tradition.

It began with a simple question: Who is the man in red?

The man in red

Davis, an art history major at Penn State, was discussing her hopes to combine her love of both art history and the physical sciences with Patrick McGrady, a curator at the Palmer Museum of Art, who showed her a number of mysterious pieces with unanswered questions in the museum’s collection. One painting in particular stood out to her: a portrait of a man in regal crimson attire, painted by an unknown artist.

Who was this enigmatic figure? When, where, why and by whom had his likeness been immortalized in pigment? Davis found herself a bona fide mystery, one she had the training and tools to solve through her art history and biochemistry studies.

“Ever since high school, I knew I wanted to combine science and history, to use science to study history, and when I took my first art history class here at Penn State, I fell in love with the field,” said Davis. “Now, through this project, I’m really able to take everything I’ve learned and figure out how to apply science to answer real-world questions.”

For McGrady, this type of work exemplifies the kind of cross-departmental collaboration that represents the future of the museum, while also demonstrating Davis’ drive and talent on the cutting edge of her chosen field.

“She’s using approaches that art historians and conservators would use in tandem; art historians often don’t have scientific expertise, while scientists often lack a high level of art expertise — and Maggie is doing both,” McGrady said. “She is doing the kinds of things right now that very few students in art history have the chance to do, and is laying the foundation for what she can go on to do as a conservator.”

With the support of McGrady and the College of Arts and Architecture, Davis was ready to get to work. But all she knew was that the painting had been donated about 30 years ago by a British woman from a notable family, who believed the subject was one of her ancestors. With no other leads to go on, Davis did what any detective would do: her legwork.

The investigation

Through extensive genealogical research, using the donor’s family name as her starting point, Davis’ detective work led her to uncover the legacy of one Dr. John Carson — an Edinburgh-educated Philadelphia native and physician who helped found the medical college at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. The puzzle pieces all seemed to fit: The regalia was period-appropriate and Carson’s wife moved back to England after his death, which would explain how it ended up in the possession of who Davis believes to be the doctor’s great-great-great granddaughter.

But Davis is a scientist, and she knew she would need more evidence to support her case — and maybe a little help. But luckily, like any good detective, she had the perfect partner to help her crack this case: the researchers of the Materials Research Institute in the Millennium Science Complex.

“Our lab was planned and conceived around interdisciplinary research,” said Vince Bojan, a surface scientist with the materials characterization lab and one of the researchers who’s joined Davis in her investigation. “This project is a great example of how we can apply materials characterization across disciplines. There is a great deal of very interesting and useful science and research that can be done when our disciplines interact.”

Davis, with guidance and support from Bojan and fellow materials researcher Julie Anderson, brought Penn State’s advanced materials characterization tools to bear in delving deeper into the mystery of the man in red. Davis, having previously written about the applications of the branch of science known as spectroscopy, knew she could use X-rays to reveal what elements are present in the painting’s pigments. She could then, equipped with this knowledge, compare the elemental composition in different regions of the painting to other paintings from the same period, which would either support or contradict her hypothesis that this piece is an American-painted portrait of Carson painted in the 1770s.

Using a portable and nonintrusive XRF tool — “basically an X-ray gun that bombards a small segment with X-rays,” Davis explained — she was able to determine that the ground layer underneath the portrait had high levels of a pigment called lead white, which is consistent with techniques used by other American painters of the 18th century.

Every new clue Davis uncovered seemed to confirm her theory, but they also raised new questions, deepening the mystery. Her analysis concluded that the brown pigments were likely made of organic materials, but the XRF wasn’t able to reveal crucial details about what kind of organic material. The XRF also confirmed that some areas of the painting were overpainted in the 20th century, meaning she’d need to examine the original paint to learn more about the painting’s origins.

Using a special tool to carefully remove very small flakes of paint, Davis collected samples of the original layers to study using the scanning electron microscope housed in the Millennium Science Complex. Although she’s still not sure of the makeup of the organic materials in the brown pigment, Davis discovered that the red pigments get their color through small but highly concentrated deposits of mercury and sulfur, another clue to the origin of the painting that fits into the materials used in early American art.

The conclusions

Although some mysteries behind the man in red remain unanswered — “We’ll probably have to use another form of spectroscopy to analyze the organic materials,” Davis said excitedly — many questions surrounding the man in red now have answers. The Palmer Museum now has a better understanding of where the portrait of Dr. John Carson fits into their collection, and into the American artistic tradition.

“She and I have had a number of debates whether the work was painted in the 1770s or between 1791 and 1794. I was arguing for the latter date, but now I think Maggie might be right,” McGrady said. “She’s developed a remarkable understanding of these kinds of tools, what they can do, and what information they can give us. Frankly, I’ve been very impressed by her scope.”

For Davis, she hopes to publish a research paper detailing the course of her investigation and her findings. As an aspiring art conservator, this project has given her a foundation she plans to build on over the course of her career.

“We’d answered one question, then six more would pop up,” Davis laughed. “But I’ve learned so much about the tools and techniques that I’ll use in my career. This has been such an amazing opportunity.”

  • Paint extraction

    Paint flakes are carefully extracted from an 18th-century portrait of John Carson, a Philadelphia physician, for elemental analysis.

    IMAGE: Avery Belser

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 25, 2018