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New insights into history of 17th-century Dutch paintings

2 December 2021
A team of researchers, led by VU Amsterdam, discovered how lead isotopes in lead white pigment can be used as an additional analytical tool to constrain the production time of 17th-century paintings from Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Hals.

The results offer the prospect that lead isotope analysis of lead white could aid attribution and authentication of the paintings and provide insights into artists’ international travels as well as lead production and trading. The research is published in Science Advances.

Lead white is a pigment that was used in paintings from antiquity until the 20th century, and is arguably the most important of all white pigments. When the lead white powder is mixed with a binder, such as linseed oil, it creates a versatile paint. Lead isotope analysis of lead white helps determine the geographic origin of the lead ore used to make the pigment. This information is useful for tracing the trade routes of lead and provide information about the history of the pigment.

Paintings throughout historical events
VU scientists Gareth Davies, Janne Koornneef and Paolo D’Imporzano, together with researchers and conservators from Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis, analysed 77 paintings from 27 different Dutch painters. The researchers took samples of lead white from authenticated paintings, with known date of production, from the Dutch museums Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and Mauritshuis (The Hague). The analyses reveal significant change in the isotopic composition of lead used in lead white at the start, middle and end of the 17th century. 

The research team associates these isotopic changes to the use of different lead sources in response of historical socio-political events. The period 1642-47 coincides with the English Civil War, when the demand for lead increased and lead production in England, the major European producer at the time, was significantly hampered resulting in changes in the international supply of lead. The second temporal change after the 1670s was associated with the rising tension, and conflicts, that took place between the English, Dutch (third Anglo-Dutch war, 1672-74) and French (Franco-Dutch war, 1672-78). These conflicts undoubtedly caused alteration in the supply routes of lead.

Identifying artistic groups and artists
The lead isotope changes of lead white allows the identification of specific artistic groups that were active in different regions where different lead sources were used to produce the pigment. This is evident from the markedly different lead isotope compositions of lead white used by 16-17th-century artists from Italy (south of the Alps) and the Netherlands (north of the Alps). This new research pushes further the state of the art of lead isotope analysis in paintings, allowing researchers to find isotopic differences between paintings belonging to the same period, region or artistic group. 

This study also shows how lead isotope analysis can be used to differentiate between early and late works of an individual artist. Paintings by F. J. Post, D. D. van Santvoort and Rembrandt record different isotopic compositions in their early and late works. The observed temporal control in lead isotope ratios will potentially be useful for art historians as they examine the time scale for the development of an artist’s oeuvre.

Integrated approach
Overall, this study combines the date and location of painting production with lead isotope ratios determined on lead white from the painting, and places the data in the context of historical socio-economical events. This integrated approach will contribute novel and increasingly more accurate information that can be used by cultural heritage researchers to date, attribute and understand artworks.

Thanks to a big NWO grant, awarded last spring, Davies is now setting up a big and modern laboratory for isotope geochemistry analysis in the brand new VU Research Building at the De Boelelaan, which will open in 2023. This new lab enables more and even better isotope research.