Materials scientists to examine mysterious copper artworks

Northwestern University materials scientists will examine eight mysterious Bolivian copper artworks from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation to help piece together the artworks’ unknown origins.

The Center for the Scientific Studies in the Arts – a joint venture of Northwestern and the Art Institute of Chicago – selected the Thoma Foundation’s works to undergo scientific analysis, with potential to provide insights into the artworks’ origins and materials and techniques used in their creation.

The Thoma Foundation’s collections contain more than 175 works from the Spanish Americas, primarily 17th- to 19th-century paintings from South America and the Caribbean. Among the collection are eight oil paintings on embossed, chased and engraved copper thought to originate in the La Paz region of Bolivia. Though made in workshop settings and produced at large scale for export across the South American continent, these artworks are little understood and have received scant scholarly attention.

We aim to be a part of the dialogue that recenters the New World to recognize it as a locale of cultural richness, deep indigenous know-how and importance.”

Marc Walton

materials scientist

The partnership between the Thoma Foundation and the Center for the Scientific Studies in the Arts will use advanced imaging techniques, extensive analytical resources and technical expertise to investigate the works’ facture (the artist’s workmanship), palette and any connections to printmaking and silversmithing, both of which were practiced contemporaneously in Bolivia. The team hopes to answer various questions, including why one work features green enamel, which is not found in any other piece in the collection, and why another work is framed with wood that is one century older than the rest of the piece.

“It is a central mission of the foundation to support scholarship in the art of the Spanish Americas, and so it is a particular pleasure for us to receive the scientific support of the team at Northwestern to add to the burgeoning body of knowledge on this art,” said Marilynn Thoma, founder of the Thoma Foundation.

This project builds on the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts’ recent collaborative efforts with the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago to examine the pigments used in Latin American and Caribbean art, which have received little attention compared to European art of the same period.

“We aim to be a part of the dialogue that recenters the New World to recognize it as a locale of cultural richness, deep indigenous know-how and importance,” said Marc Walton, a Northwestern materials scientist, who leads the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts.

Walton’s team will analyze the works at the Thoma Foundation’s Orange Door facility in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood during the first two weeks of September. It aims to report its findings next year.

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