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Technical Study of Bronze Sculptures

About the Project

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Paris was home to several bronze foundries that made it the primary center for the production of artistic bronzes, or bronzes d’art.  The accurate measurements of the metal composition of these casts provide the art historian and connoisseur of early 20th-century bronze sculpture with a richer understanding of an object’s biography, and can help to determine provenance, and address questions about authenticity. The center created an extensive database of 171 bronze compositions used in the 20th century by Parisian foundries that illuminate some aspects of foundry production throughout time, such as usage of different compositional ranges for sand- versus lost-wax casting. This new detailed knowledge of alloy composition is most illuminating when the interpretation of the data focuses on a single artist’s casts within a specific historical context. As a case in point, single artist productions are presented for the artists: Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Honoré Daumier and Malvina Hoffman.

The Process

The researchers analyzed and gathered the elemental compositions of 171 sculptures using material samples and a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. Results showed the composition of the ternary copper alloy, namely copper together with zinc and tin, used by the foundries that cast the objects. Scientists then compared the amounts of zinc and tin, the two principal alloying agents, with foundry marks, archival documents, and previously published data.

The Impact

The project promises not just to advance technical knowledge of this particular group of objects but to allow sharing of comparative data among institutions, leading to a better understanding of sculptural editions and the role of different foundries in artists’ practice.

Case Studies

Bronze Sculptures by Picasso

We have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musée national Picasso-Paris’ world-renowned Pablo Picasso bronzes using cutting-edge, portable instruments. A priceless group of 39 bronzes (cast between 1905 and 1959) and 11 painted sheet metal sculptures (from the 1960s) in the Musée national Picasso-Paris’ collection were non-invasively analyzed with the help of portable instruments and a robust database of alloy “fingerprints”.
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Bronze sculptures by Rodin

In collaboration with the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University, we conducted an extensive study of Rodin bronze sculptures. The Rodin collection at the Cantor includes sculptures cast over many decades, including sculptures cast during Rodin’s lifetime and many posthumous castings completed from 1950s to 1980s.
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Related Content

Read more about the process and the objects studied on the Smart Museum website.

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