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Technical Study of Poèmes Barbares by Paul Gauguin

About this Project

Paul Gauguin painted the enigmatic composition Poèmes Barbares during his second trip to French Polynesia in 1896. It displays a fusion of different mythologies; the animal god depicted has been identified as Ta’aroa, the Tahitian deity who is the creator of the universe, while the winged female figure combines elements of Christian and Buddhist traditions. The painting, now housed at the Harvard Art Museums, was radiographed for the first time in 2011 and, unexpectedly, an entirely different composition was discovered below the surface. Turned ninety degrees counterclockwise to a landscape orientation, Gauguin had first painted a small Tahitian scene with two horses and riders. A clearer understanding of this hidden image required a determination of the pigments comprising the palettes of the surface versus the invisible painting.

The Investigation

The Goal

Our goal for this project is to identify the range of pigments used in the upper composition and in the hidden image. This will allow us to draw comparisons between the palettes of the two compositions and those of other similar artworks made by Gauguin, to determine what role this painting may have played in the artist’s oeuvre.

The Process

Two sets of complementary hyperspectral analyses, namely macro-X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) elemental mapping and visible reflectance imaging (or hyperspectral imaging, HSI), were selected as the key non-invasive analytical techniques, due to their ability to yield chemical information at the elemental and the molecular level respectively. Both systems have motorized stages designed to collect chemical distributions across painted surfaces, including a homebuilt two-dimensional scanner, and are portable. This enabled mapping and imaging to be performed in-situ at the Harvard Art Museums.

The Impact

In addition to providing us with a better technical understanding of Poèmes Barbares, which will help museum professionals make sensible decisions regarding its conservation, this study is expected to demonstrate the advantages of MA-XRF and HSI when used together. Due to their ability of merging portability with accuracy in identifying chemical information from the visible surface and the hidden layer of a painting, the combined use of these methods could significantly improve the present practice of chemical imaging of large works of art.

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