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Solving the mystery of Gaugin's prints

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Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Like many artists, the painter Paul Gauguin was not fully appreciated in until after his death. Only through the efforts of a famed French art dealer did he receive his current status as one of the giants of the 19th century Impressionist movement.

Gauguin’s fame may have been built on his vivid and colorful canvases depicting 19th century Tahitian life, but a team of scientific research has been working hard to figure out just how the artist made a few mysterious stark prints before his death in 1903.

A joint team of researchers from Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago has used a range of techniques to determine how 19 Gauguin prints stored at the Art Institute were made. Gloria Groom, a curator at the Art Institute, told Newsweek that art scholars never thought they would figure out how Gauguin made the miniscule markings on the prints, which looks flatter than many layered paintings.

“We think of a print as, that’s it. That’s all you get,” Groom said. “We never knew how we could extract this other information.”

Photometric stereo…is not a sound system

Using a technique called “photometric stereo”, the team found that Gauguin developed the print using a layering of images produced on paper by drawings, transfer of images and two kinds of inks.

“To measure the 3D surface of the prints, we used some very accessible techniques that can be used by art conservators and historians around the world to analyze artworks,” said Oliver S. Cossairt, a computer scientist at Northwestern who developed software to analyze the imaging data. “In applying these techniques to Gauguin’s work, we came up with some interesting answers to questions about what his printing process was.”

The study team used several wavelengths of light applied from different directions to image the surface of the prints. The technique permitted the researchers the chance to mathematically split color from surface shape, giving a lot of detail on the paper’s topography.

“The technique allows us to peel away the print’s color and look at the surface structure only,” Cossairt said. “For each image, we know the angle of the lighting and the brightness of each pixel and from that we can calculate the unknown – the surface structure.”

What it all revealed (drum roll, please)

The process revealed two major details about Gauguin’s process. First, the white lines were made by Gauguin ‘drawing’ on an inked surface and removing ink as he did. Second, the black lines were made by Gauguin putting paper on an inked surface and then drawing on the back of the paper, transferring ink to the paper where pressure was applied. The researchers used their findings to accurate replicate Gauguin’s work.

“Gauguin died more than a century ago, but there is still something to say, something new to find out, in large part due to this teamwork,” said Harriet Stratis, senior research conservator at the Art Institute.

“Gauguin probably was doing these kinds of prints for five years, so this research puts a whole body of work together,” she added. “The evidence points to a completely different artistic approach by Gauguin.”


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