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Close Examination: about the research

Visitors to the Gallery may not be aware of the remarkable stories that lie hidden beneath the surface of the paintings, or the array of techniques which have been used to reveal them

These case studies investigate paintings from Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. They draw on more than 75 years of collaborative research involving the Gallery’s Scientific, Conservation and Curatorial departments. The case studies provide an opportunity for visitors to explore some of the fascinating secrets behind the National Gallery’s paintings.

Researching the Old Masters

Each case study looks at issues typically encountered when researching Old Master paintings – questions of authenticity and attribution, individual artistic practice and the effect of later changes to a painting. In each instance, scientists and researchers draw from an array of analytical methods to investigate a painting’s physical properties. Methods range from simply looking closely at the painting to performing highly sophisticated scientific analyses.

Analysing paintings

Simple visual examination of a painting can be enhanced by magnification or specialised illumination. This can be complemented by a study of archival evidence. In addition, sophisticated scientific analysis may be used to determine the precise composition of individual painting materials, such as pigments, medium, varnish and support.

A range of analytical techniques can be applied. In addition to using microscopes, various imaging techniques (including ultraviolet, X-ray and infrared images) may be used. These dramatically extend what the human eye can see and offer unique insights into the work of art.

Scientific analysis cannot always provide answers on its own. Connoisseurship – the ability to recognise and assess the characteristic style of an artist or school – is another vitally important tool, especially when used alongside objective scientific inquiry.

Each analytical technique provides just a piece of the puzzle. A combination of approaches is therefore typically used to address the specific questions a painting poses. Are the materials and techniques appropriate to the supposed artist, date and place of execution? Anomalies or discrepancies signal a need for further investigation – often with surprising results. ‘Close Examination’ tracks investigations into the hidden histories of 37 paintings in the National Gallery collection.

Key themes

The case studies provide in-depth information on each of the paintings. They are grouped according to six key themes: