Applying Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering to the Conservation of Art Works

Hello, everyone! My name is Marisa Choffel, and I am a rising senior here at W&M. I’m majoring in Chemistry and minoring in Computer Science. I’ve been working in Dr. Kristin Wustholz’s lab for the last two semesters, and I look forward to working in the lab this summer.

If you have seen a historical painting, then you have witnessed dye fading. Organic pigments’ higher tendency to fade is one of the main challenges for art historians, conservators, and museum visitors. Identifying the pigment can provide conservators with a reference for digital reconstruction and counteract fading’s impact on history. We use surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) to identify organic colorants in paintings. SERS is the only analytical technique that uses a small sample size and provides a strong signal for identification.

This summer I will collaborate with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and its paintings conservator, Shelley Svoboda, to examine several paintings by Charles Willson Peale. Peale was an early American artist, painting during and after the Revolution. In 1793, Peale made several disparaging remarks about carmine, a red dye, swearing he’d never use it again because it fades so quickly. We intend to discover, using SERS, whether or not Peale truly did stop using carmine after his comments. Identifying the faded pigments in Peale’s paintings using SERS will not only help with digital reconstructions of his paintings, but would provide insight into the artist himself. History remembers Peale as a painter and a founder of one of the first museums in America, but there is so much more we can discover by examining the dyes he used.