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  • A Master’s Brush Strokes Revealed

May 2008
Michael A. Greenwood

During his brief life, the Portuguese artist Henrique Pousão painted a variety of subjects, from bouquets of flowers to flowing country landscapes and from female nudes to bedraggled men.

Although he belonged to the naturalist movement, he seems to have been influenced by Impressionism, and some of his works have been considered precursors to abstract art.

The scenes that he painted more than a century ago — before his untimely death in 1884 at 25 years of age, as a result of complications from tuberculosis — continue to attract art aficionados. A team of investigators now also has been drawn to the master’s works — interested in not only what he painted, but also how.

The researchers, from the University of Lisbon in Portugal, from Instituto dos Museus e da Conservação, also in Lisbon, and from University College London applied a variety of modern x-ray and spectroscopy techniques to Pousão’s paintings to determine which pigments and other materials he used. The results allowed them to better understand his technique as well as the painter himself, who is regarded as one of Portugal’s most important artists.

Photomicrographs of some of the cross sections that were analysed: (a) sample from “Casas Brancas de Capri” (1103 original magnification), (b) sample from “Cecìlia” (1103 original magnification), (c) sample from “Mulher da água” (2203 original magnification), and (d) sample from “Senhora Vestida de Preto” (2203 original magnification). Reprinted with permission of Analytical Chemistry.

Using a surgical scalpel, the investigators removed minuscule pieces of paint from the margins and lacunae of 11 of Pousão’s works. The 17 samples were examined with a Bruker micro-x-ray diffractometer, with a Nicolet (now Thermo Fisher Scientific) infrared spectrometer and a Renishaw Raman spectrometer.

Whereas some compounds, such as pigments and extenders, were identified by all three techniques, others were identified by only one. For example, each method identified the presence of barium sulphate, but only infrared microspectroscopy confirmed the presence of kaolinite. Details of the research are reported in the 1 March, 2008, issue of Analytical Chemistry.

Researchers analysed the following paintings from Pousão: (a) “Casa Rústica de Campanhã,” (b) “O Mendigo Lapita,” (c) “Aldeia de St. Sauves,” (d) “Paisagem de St. Sauves,” (e) “Casas Brancas de Capri,” (f) “Cecìlia,” (g) “Esperando o Sucesso,” (h) “Mulher da água,” (i) “Senhora Vestida de Preto,” (j) “Cais de Barcelona” and (k) “Flores Campestres.” Reprinted with permission of Analytical Chemistry.

The researchers said that the multiple analyses demonstrate the importance of applying complementary analytical techniques to the study of artwork. All methods have their own specificities and, collectively, they provide a fuller, more detailed picture of the painting in question.

Pousão lived and painted during a period when artists were experimenting with new materials, even as they continued to use traditional pigments. The analysis of Pousão’s body of work (spanning the period from 1880 to 1884) turned up ample evidence that he used a mixture of newer and older materials.

A permanent exhibition of the artist’s work can be seen at the Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis in Porto, Portugal.

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