The Chemistry of Art

Welcome to the Chemistry of Art!

This endeavor grew out of a collaboration between the Department of Chemistry at Rice University and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) starting in 2005. It is intended to help visitors to the site understand and experience the role that chemistry and science in general plays in the creation, preservation, restoration and authentication of art objects. In part the a goal of this endeavor is to provide beginning visual artists, conservators and conservation scientists with an informative overview of the tools of their trade. To become an expert in these requires of study of a wide variety of discliplines that underlie their creation: chemistry, physics, materials science, geology, minerology and biosciences. We hope that you find resource informative and that it contributes to your apreciation of art, not only as a means of human expression, but also as a highly technical activity that is dependent on science and engineering for its success.

Artists have many choices as they begin the creative process. Today museums and art collectors face challenges not only in determining whether objects are authentic or fake, but also in how they should be cleaned, restored, stored, transported and displayed. All of these endeavors require a detailed understanding what materials were used and how artists went about creating their masterpieces. The work of conservators is slow and painstaking, and involves detailed study and analysis of a work of art before any type of restoration process can be undertaken.

Presenting this material in a coherent fashion presents some challenges. There are two obvious ways to organize Art: according to the type of work or to the materials from which the objects are made. Unfortunately, there are no clear lines to separate these into neat, satisfying boxes. Paintings in oil, tempera and water color are all paintings, but the techniques and materials used for each are different from the others, and watercolor paintings are usually handled by conservators whose speciality is in works on paper, which also includes various types of printmaking and drawings. And paints can be used to paint anything - furniture, statues, ceramics and pretty much anything else imaginable. But thenb again, statues can be made of a wide variety of materials - stone, metals or alloys, wood, clay, etc. Modern statues can be mixed media, incorporating glass, textiles and plastics, etc, and then there is collage, which seems to be a world of its own but one that incorporates elements from a wide variety of other art forms. In approaching this dilemma, we have chosen to present entry points both the type of object and in the types of materials that were used. There are many cross connections, so exploring one can lead you down a variety of different paths. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "It is not the Destination, It's the journey."

We hope that this website to provides you, our welcome visitor, with an introductory understanding of the chemistry and related sciences that underlies the authentication, care and restoration, displaying and storing of art of all genres. We can't be exhaustive in our descriptions in this format, but ideally it will serve as a jumping off point for greater understanding of the artistic process and an appreciation for all that makes up the world of art collecting and preservation. Many thanks to the folks at the MFAH for their continued collaboration over the years.

Kenton H. Whitmire, PhD

Explore Further

Credits for the header image

  • Master of the Holy Blood, Netherlandish, active early 16th century, Virgin and Child, c. 1500–1525, Oil on wood.
  • Frederic Remington, American, 1861–1909, The Scout, c. 1902, Oil on canvas.
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–1669, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1633, Oil on wood.
  • Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926, Water Lilies (Nymphéas), 1907, Oil on canvas.

Credits for the topic images

  • Ceramics & Glasses: Unknown Chinese, Figure of a Horse, early 7th–early 10th century, Earthenware with three-color (sancai) glaze, from the collection of the MFAH
  • Decorative Arts: Agostino Gerli, Cabinet, c. 1785, Kingwood, ebony, wax, pine gilt and Sicilian jasper, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Gems & Minerals: Artist Unknown, Possibly Indian or Spanish, imported France, Parure, 1780–1820, France, Medium Emeralds, diamonds and yellow gold with silver overlay, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Metals & Alloys: Baldwin Gardiner, Tureen with Cover on Stand, c. 1830, Silver, from the Collection of the MFAH.
  • Oils, Varnishes & Other Coatings: Some different varieties of shellac flakes, for the shellac article on Wikimedia by Magnus Manske.
  • Paintings: Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606–1669, Portrait of a Young Woman, 1633, Oil on wood, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Chemical Photography: Annie Leibovitz, American, born 1949, John and Yoko, New York , December 8, 1980, Dye transfer print, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Pigments, Dyes, Inks & Glazes: Public Domain Image from
  • Sculpture: Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, French, 1824–1887, Bust of a Bacchante, 1860s or later, Marble, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Textiles:Flemish (probably Tournai), Hercules Slaying King Laomedon, 1480–1500, Tapestry: Wool and silk, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Wood:Unknown Spanish, Trinitarian Friar, 17th century, Wood, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Works on Paper: Robert Havell, Jr., American, Louisiana Heron, 1834, from the collection of the MFAH.
  • Art Conservation: Pictures from the Conservation Department at the MFAH.

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