Chapter 3 Testing the Van Gogh

Just 24 hours later Ali showed up again at Ren’s office. Ren was a little shocked because he had not expected him back so soon, especially not the next day. Ali walked in carrying something wrapped in cloth. He unwrapped the painting, and there it was, right before Ren: Garden and Terrace, painted by Vincent Van Gogh! Ren made an animal noise of some kind. He couldn’t believe it. The painting was larger than he had expected- about 45 x 35 inches. It was in a beautiful gold colored frame and definitely radiated powerful waves through the room. Ren had been to several Van Gogh exhibitions. He did not recognize this particular painting, but the style did appear to be Van Gogh’s, at least to his untrained eyes. And the effect it radiated was strong and powerful. The mayhem emanating from the painting grabbed Ren immediately. In one moment in time, Van Gogh had caught the surreptitious power of nature.

The painting showed a veranda and a vast wild flower garden right behind it. On the left side and in the foreground was the veranda. It was simple and stark. There was a floor of large rectangular reddish tiles, a wooden bench and a small side table. On the edge of the veranda was a short white washed wall with an opening through it. On the right the background flowers made up the largest portion of the painting, and they dominated it. Closest were tall flowers that leaned over the wall, casting a shadow on the veranda and everything in it.

Beyond the veranda was a field of flowers that extended in a patchwork all the way back to the hill above. From the opening in the wall a narrow path meandered through the flowers up the hill. The flowers were painted with intense colors and they appeared thicker, taller and wilder as the garden receded. Although receded was not the correct descriptor, because the flowers appeared more prominent, thicker and darkly menacing in the rear of the garden. In fact, the back the garden seemed to rise up from the ground and hover above it. The overall effect was jarring and provoked a sense of impending catastrophe. The nearest flowers were daisies-brilliantly white, light and tangled and falling over the wall. They presented a false sense of optimism. The second group was irises that looked like a purple rug that extended for ten yards before the incline of the hill. The next group was poppies, a patchwork carpet of yellow and red that covered three quarters of the way up the hill. Farthest away, yet towering the highest, were strands of intertwined sunflowers. They appeared closer than they were because of their towering height.

On the left, the veranda was precisely painted, almost perfectly executed with fine strokes. But the flowers were strongly and wildly painted with mountains of paint and thick brush strokes. The patches of color clashed where they met. The flow of the flowers swept menacingly forward toward the veranda. The painting extruded two abruptly opposite feelings. In the foreground was structure and order. In the background was nature and chaos. There was no doubt which of the two Van Gogh expected to win, and what his perspective was. Nature and chaos would soon overwhelm the veranda and it would be consumed. In a few years the veranda would be largely obscured by wild flowers.

“I’m stunned.” Ren said. “I have never been this close to a painting by such a famous artist. And you are absolutely correct; it is a powerful painting and the colors are magnificent. And you just brought it here without security. What if you had been robbed?”

“If it is real I would have been devastated. If it is a fake, then I wouldn’t care. Either way I would call the insurance company. Anonymity is the best protection. The thing that I was most worried about was getting into a car accident coming here.”

“I think I could sample from a corner.”

“Just pick somewhere that won’t be noticed, as you can see, there is plenty of unexposed canvas surrounding the painting.”

“Let me think about this. I have never done anything like this before, so I don’t want to do anything stupid. I wish I could consult an art conservator, but there isn’t the time and you wouldn’t let me do it, anyway.”

Ali commented, “No Ren, you are it. I have absolute confidence in you. Do the best you can and we’ll decide what to do after you come up with some results.”

“OK, I’ll put it under the dissecting microscope. We normally work with cells that are 20 microns in diameter and 5-7 microns thick. So this shouldn’t be that hard to sample and image. I imagine that there is a base coat on the canvas, then a paint layer-possibly several layers thick and then a surface coat. Maybe the entire depth of the paint is 500 microns-half a millimeter, maybe a little more in areas of intense paint. I’ll sample from an area of the canvas that is hidden by the frame. With a small auto controlled knife, I’ll cut a narrow vertical sliver into the paint in several places. I don’t want to do it by hand and risk going through the canvas. It will be a V shape down to the canvas surface. After I lift the slice out, I’ll turn it on its side and cut 5 horizontal layers through the paint, or as we say, z-layers. Each will be about 100 microns thick. This way we can analyze several layers through the paint and compare them. The surface layer may be the hardest to interpret. There may have been some recent cleaning or touching up, and then resealing performed; this layer might reflect chemicals or products used in a more recent times. I can’t sample interior locations because this would destroy the integrity of the canvas fiber system. It would be a disaster to cut into an interior section.”

A concerned Ali said, “Will the cuts be noticeable?”

Ren countered, “To the casual eye, no. But, if you take a closer look – maybe. Remember they will be on the periphery of the painting and not in the central viewing area.

Ali said, “I’ll take it apart. The painting and its backing will slide right out of the frame it is in.”

“OK, I’m going to go get Liz to help me.”

Ali became excited, “Can’t you do everything? I would prefer not to have anybody else involved.”

“Ali, Liz is my right hand technician and she is highly trustworthy. She can be counted on to be discrete. Also, she is the one who maintains and runs everything you see in the lab. It would be difficult to keep this project from her. So being straight up with her from the outset would be best. But we do not have to mention anything about a possible forgery. Let’s just say that we are trying to get a chemical fingerprint on the painting for insurance documentation and possible later sale purposes. You could use these analyses in the future to have a verifiable finger print of the authentic painting.”

Ali said, “OK. Call Liz in. But please be careful what you tell her.

Ren went down the hall to find Liz. He filled her in on what was needed but he did not mention the forgery angle. Liz was pretty sharp and no doubt she would eventually figure out the real reason for the tests. She started to prepare the dissecting microscope for use with a painting. She also went to get some ultra clean sample vials.

Ren stopped by the office to get Ali. They brought the painting into the lab. They entered the clean room where the samples would be taken. Liz had the micro forceps and knives ready. She was really shocked to find out they were going to cut into a Van Gogh. Ren had forgotten to mention this point. Ali popped out the canvas. It remained attached to the support and there was about a half-inch border containing paint on each side. The canvas was secured to support with many thumb tacks. Liz secured the support on the instrument platform. With a magnifying headset on and with Ali and Liz watching the monitor, Ren started to take samples in locations around the periphery that showed different paint colors. The knife and forceps were attached to micromanipulator arms. These were designed so that any quick, unintentional movements would be dampened. This would prevent slippage and a disastrous mistake.

Each sliver required at least 10 minutes to cut and retract. It was excruciating work. Sweat poured down Ren’s face almost from the start. It was nerve racking to work on something so famous and valuable. After removing a sliver, it was turned on its side to expose the entire depth, brought over to the microtome, and sectioned to produce serial sections from the top surface to the lower layer of the paint. As each serial section was taken off it was photographed and then placed into a labeled vial. After about 3 hours of work they had sampled 4 locations in the painting and had 4-5 layers through each location-about twenty samples in all. They would be able to get good profiles of each section with just 0.1 milligrams of paint- a little more than what can sit on the head of a pin. They did not need to absolutely quantify all of the compounds in the samples. All that was required was to get good enough signals to develop the compositional profile of the paint. If a modern paint or ingredient was used, it would be comprised of a tell tale composition of modern chemicals, and most likely, Ren and Liz would be able to pick them out and identify them. Ren handed the vials to Liz for processing. It was time to send the Van Gogh home with Ali. Ali reassembled the painting and frame. He wrapped the cloth around it and was ready to leave.

Ali asked, “When will you know about the composition of the paint?”

Ren answered, “We’ll know in a couple of days. It might take a while to match the compounds we find with the library of spectra in the database. We might have to fragment each compound to get a definitive finger print.”

Ali started out the door of the lab and turned and laughed, “When you’re done, just tell me yes or no.”

Ren countered, “I hope I will be able to. But I can tell you from vast experience, it is never that simple.” His tone was confident.

Ali turned and walked down the hall. Ren was shocked how nonchalantly he carried a 50 million-dollar painting under his arm. He hoped Ali did not trip on the way out of the building. To be honest, he was glad to get both of them out of the lab!