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A Closer Look: Deceptions & Discoveries – Marjorie E. Wieseman ***

It’s rather unusual for this site to feature a book about art – but the topic of this compact National Galleries/Yale University Press book is the way we can find out more about art works using scientific techniques to delve into just who painted them and how.
The sheer volume of technology leading galleries have up their sleeves is quite mind-boggling. While suspicions are still often roused by an expert idea, we then get all sorts of specialist X-rays, infra-red scans (good for detecting the drawing underneath paint), gas chromatography (identifying the makeup of the paint)… even using tree ring dating in the wood that many old paintings were produced on. The result is a remarkable armoury set up against would-be forgers and simple misunderstandings about a painting’s origins.
A guided tour of the technology is then followed up by 16 ‘case studies’ each taking an individual painting where the original dating or attribution were wrong, or where new discoveries have been made about how the painter went about their art, thanks to the technology.
This is all excellent stuff, and well illustrated as you would expect, but it is a very dry presentation of fact. To be frank, it takes a fascinating subject and makes it a bit dull. Even the case studies, which have buried in them fascinating stories don’t exactly draw the reader in. So, great on content, fascinating and not something those outside the art world often appreciate – but could have been made more appealing to the general reader.
One particular oddity in a book about overpaintings and such – the image shown here isn’t the same one as on the copy of the book I have. Mine has a picture of a Christmas tree on it. More deception?

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Review by Brian Clegg

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