High-Tech Art Sleuthing in the Harvard Magazine

Call them art detectives. Using scientific methods, the researchers at the Fogg Museum’s Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies gather evidence and help solve art mysteries: Who painted this? What materials did the artist use?

One such mystery involves the self-taught American artist James Castle. Profoundly deaf, perhaps autistic, he never learned to speak or write. He lived in rural Idaho, creating compelling, intimate works, including hundreds of drawings using only woodstove-soot mixed with his own saliva. He sketched with color as well, and assembled three-dimensional figures from bits of packaging. His work was still largely unknown outside Idaho when he died in 1977 at the age of 78.

Flash forward three decades. Conservators wanted to know where Castle obtained his pigments, what tools he used, and how he worked. Castle’s family had provided some clues, through artifacts and memories. For more precise information about certain pieces, Daniel Kirby, an associate in conservation science at the Straus Center who has a background in biotechnology, used an instrument common in biology but fairly new to art conservation: a laser-desorption-ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometer…

Read the full Harvard Magazine article online to learn more about Kirby’s results and the use of LDMS in conservation.