Some pioneering research into early American art is happening right here in Delaware, at a part of Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library that few visitors actually see.
It's a place of research, study and science. This summer, their efforts are being assisted by a state-of-the-art, x-ray type machine that's currently on loan to the research team.
Recently, the machine scanned a self-portrait of William Williams. Winterthur Curator of Paintings Matt Cushman was analyzing the results.
"What it's doing is basically directing a beam of x-rays to the surface of the painting. That x-ray beam is interacting with the atoms that are there. The atoms are giving off an energy, we're detecting that energy and that lets us know what atoms are there," Cushman said. "We get a mapping sort of capability of where those elements are."
The study, Cushman said, allows researchers to track the process of the artist and determine the materials that were used. As it turned out, Williams initially portrayed himself as a writer or a scholar, but the later version portrayed himself as a painter, holding a palette.
The research also helps Cushman and others determine chemical compounds of the paints, including those that are likely to degrade over time. If paint is found to contain arsenic, curators will be extra careful if they try to clean or restore the painting.
"This technique is not only helping us understand the materials and how the artists work but it's also helping to guide our treatments of these pictures as well," Cushman said.
"It's so much more than we can get with the instruments we have already in the lab," Winterthur Arts Scientist Rosie Grayburn said.
Monet was found to have painted waterlilies under a painting of wisteria. Do such exciting discoveries await in the collection at Winterthur?
"We're looking for the classic painting-under-a-painting quandary. We want to understand how William Williams was working during his career, but also the pigments that are possibly being used during that period are also very interesting for us," Grayburn said.