A New Mystery to Solve….

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of returning to the Colonial Williamsburg Paintings Conservation Lab with my research advisor to pick up a few more historic art samples for analysis.  However, this time instead of analyzing samples from 18th century oil paintings, we were given some samples from a 19th century painted dining room referred to as the “Carolina Room.”  This room was painted in the 1830s for a plantation owner in North Carolina and includes some very unique and interesting details, the most notable being the intricate “Vue of New York” scene painted above the mantle as well as painting techniques designed to simulate more expensive woods, marble, and wallpaper around the room.  (For more details check out this link: http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/summer08/carolina.cfm)

Our collaborator, Shelley Svoboda, gave us a very representative array of samples to analyze including many different colors from varying locations around the room.  Since we were very successful analyzing red pigments earlier in the year, I analyzed those those first.  If you haven’t read my earlier blog posts, this analysis consists of applying silver nanoparticles to the sample and using a specially designed Raman Microscope to obtain an optimized spectrum (a series of peaks) that acts as a compound’s “fingerprint.”  After following this procedure,VOILA!  I was lucky enough to  successfully identify two colorants, a red and a white, present in a quite a few of the samples. 

While these colorants were readily identifiable, the composition of our other samples remain a mystery.  I have been able to consistently see a few peaks which I believe are characteristic of some sort of colorant, but they do not match any of the known pigments I have tested or literature I have read and compared them to.  Which is quite surprising.  We have ordered a number of new types of pigments in order to try and find a match so hopefully I will be able to report that the case has been solved very soon!

Photos courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.


  1. Your research sounds so cool. Art, history and mystery all combined. I hope you were able figure out this one!

  2. kwjenkins says:

    Wow, this project sounds really interesting! What art pieces have you worked with on this?

  3. Thanks guys! This summer I mostly just worked on that painted room I mentioned in the post. If you check out the link with the pictures you can see there is quite a bit to sample and do there!

    During the year I worked on three other paintings, one was by Joshua Reynolds and the other two were by the first artist born in the American colonies named Robert Feke. You can see them in this link to the short letter we had published in the spring…enjoy!