Study the chemistry of art. Study the art of chemistry.

Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses—especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
– Leonardo da Vinci

In popular culture, hard science and art are often perceived as opposites. In reality, however, there is an intimate link between the physical sciences and the creation and perception of an artistic work. An understanding of chemistry, specifically, is able to provide a fascinating twist to artistic appreciation. As an example, the patina of the 19th-century cow weathervane in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection is complex and beautiful. A reflection of its age, verdigris is visible where the applied gilt surface has worn away.  One of several weathervanes bequeathed by Paul Mellon, it is currently on view in the exhibition, NSLMology: The Science Sporting Art. The decorative object provides a springboard for discussions about chemistry and art.

American School, 19th century, A Cow, molded copper with cast iron and cast zinc horns, 14 1/4 x 23 inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999

Chemistry as a science deals with the material properties of elements and compounds, and how these things work together. It is sometimes referred to as the “central science” because it bridges and connects the natural sciences. In art, everything from the mixing of paint to casting of sculpture can be described with chemical reactions and terminology.

The molded body of the weathervane was made from a copper alloy which turns greenish-blue when exposed to the elements. Note also that the patina of the metal exposed in the head of the cow is gray. This is because it is made of cast iron with cast-zinc horns. Welded onto the body, the heavier materials create balance for smoother spinning on the weathervane’s axis. Traditionally, gold leaf was not only applied as an aesthetic choice but also as a practical one. Gold is one of the least reactive elements and the most malleable of metals. It can be hammered into extremely thin sheets and retain its ability to be an effective barrier against moisture and exposure to oxygen.

Ferdinand Pautrot (French, 1832–1874), Rooster, Snails, and Pumpkin, after 1860, bronze
6 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches, Gift of the Estate of Milton Ritzenberg, 2018

Metal casting is integral to the NSLM’s bronze collection. From a scientific perspective, this technique provides fodder for an examination of chemical theory. For example, casting encompasses the three states of matter—liquid (molten bronze), gas (released as the bronze is poured and cools), and a solid (resulting sculpture). Also, the cooling of the bronze is an exothermic reaction, involving the release of heat.

Diagram of classic lost wax casting of a bronze, graphic by Jody West

Pigments are another natural platform for discussing chemical principles. Before paint was mass produced, artists often mixed their own paints from naturally occurring elements and minerals. For example, white paint could be made using lead (lead carbonate), white lime (calcium carbonate), or gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate). In 1921, American and Norwegian companies began to develop titanium dioxide, or titanium white, for painting in mass quantities. Knowing this brings a completely different perspective to looking at NSLM’s 17th to 21st century art collection. It begs analysis of how whites compare from one work to another and invites observations about the differences and similarities between them.

Left to right:  Abraham van Calraet (Dutch, 1642–1722), Portrait of a Horse in a Landscape (detail), c. 1690, oil on panel, 19 x 23 1/4 inches, Gift of Mrs. Henry H. Weldon, 2008; Follower of James Ross (British, fl. 1729–1738), A Hare Hunting Scene  (detail), 18th century, oil on canvas, 34 ½  x 54 ½  inches, Gift of Gerald Parsky, 2008; John Bucknell Russell (Scottish, 1820–1893), The Day’s Catch (detail), 1865; oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 29 1/4 inches, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Timothy J. Greenan, 2011; Phoebe Phipps (English/American, ?–1993), The Quail Hunter (detail), 1986, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 1/2 inches, Gift of Mrs. Mimi Abel Smith, 2012

With a clinical eye, scientific principles are easily observed in art. An understanding these ideas can enhance one’s appreciation of a work. Chemistry is just one section in NSLMology on view though September 15, 2019. Weather, Ecology, Motion, and Color Theory are also presented in the same way in the interdisciplinary exhibition to shed a universal light on the understanding and appreciation of sporting art. Please join us in the galleries to explore this new perspective on the collection!


pfeiffer

Claudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

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