Argonne National Laboratory Center for Nanoscale Materials U.S. Department of Energy

"Picasso CSI"

Pablo Picasso, Red Armchair

Picasso used Ripolin commercial house paint in this work, The Red Armchair (1931).

A collaboration between the Art Institute of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, nicknamed "Picasso CSI," has produced an answer to a heated topic that has vexed the art world for decades: Pablo Picasso was the first artist to use common house paint in his work and spread that practice widely. It also has drawn the two distant worlds of cultural heritage experts and scientists together with the potential to rewrite art history.

Starting in the summer of 2010 and continuing through the summer of 2011, Volker Rose (of Argonne's Advanced Photon Source and the Center for Nanoscale Materials' X-Ray Microscopy Group) and Art Institute conservation scientist Francesca Casadio used the CNM/APS Hard X-Ray Nanoprobe beamline to analyze several Picasso paint samples and several others made by an obscure French paint company, all about as small as a grain of salt. Their analysis of the samples, removed from Picasso's pieces by using micro-manipulating tools on errant drips, was critical in finding that, indeed, Picasso used the first commercial house paint made by the Ripolin company, as early as 1912.

Picasso's affinity for house paint is said to have sparked an upheaval in the use of traditional art materials. The theory is that Picasso used the enamels because he could produce paintings faster than by using conventional tube paint. The scanning probe X-ray fluorescence capability of the Hard X-Ray Nanoprobe was used to uncover this finding.

On the arts' side, the use of extremely intense X-rays is revolutionizing the work of cultural historians, according to Casadio, who adds that more certain and specific knowledge of an artwork's makeup gleaned from the Nanoprobe can improve greatly its treatment, preservation and restoration.

(excerpted from the Chicago Tribune, Wednesday, October 20, 2012)

F. Casadio and V. Rose, "High-resolution fluorescence mapping of impurities in historical zinc oxide pigments: hard X-ray nanoprobe applications to the paints of Pablo Picasso," Appl. Phys. A, 111, 1-8 (2013) (online)

In the News

October 2012

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