Science Suggests Art Masterpieces Were Traced

ByABC News
November 30, 2001, 4:14 PM

Dec. 5 -- The clues could be as subtle as a tiny scratch made with a needle. Sometimes they were more obvious like the smooth, unhesitating lines that outlined a figure.

Combined, Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Mark Tucker believes it's clear that the great 19th-century American painter Thomas Eakins had a secret technique for achieving the remarkable realism often praised in his work: he traced from photographs.

And recent science suggests he was not alone.

According to the collaborative work of an artist and surface scientist, artists dating as far back as 1430 traced their images from optical projections of photographs or real life.

"We want to unambiguously prove that artists used lenses way back in 1430, so then every artist since then is suspect," explained Charles Falco, a surface scientist at the University of Arizona. "People who have not seen the visual evidence are skeptical. But once I show them, they are converted."

Bach With a Tape Recorder?

Some art historians have felt affronted by the claims. They argue that a year or two of scientific analysis can't possibly topple the decades of analysis by art scholars that barely mentions such tracing techniques.

"It's like saying Bach had a tape recorder and recorded noises from the forest for his music," said Walter Liedtke, curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. "It's ridiculous."

To detect the use of tracing, Tucker and his colleague Nica Gutman used infrared reflectography to examine the pencil drawings underneath the paint of Eakins' works. An infrared reflectography camera detects infrared light that's shined on a painting and reflected by paint layers.

Outlines of etchings used under a painting appear black on the camera's screen since these materials absorb the light.

When examining some works like Eakins' "Shad Fishing at Gloucester on the Delaware River," (1881) Tucker and Gutman noticed that the underdrawings were made up of "unhesitating" lines that had "unmistakable traced qualities" to them.