Lilly Woerner

Seeing Red: Investigation of the color’s use in early baroque art and stability based upon pigment preparation

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Lilly Woerner
Majors: Chemistry and Art History
Advisors: Dr. Sarah Sobeck and Dr. Tracy Cosgriff

When the cochineal insect was first introduced to Europe from the New World in the sixteenth century, artists and dyers flocked to this new, vibrant red dye source. However, like other organic dyes, cochineal can quickly break down, causing the formally bright color to fade. In the artistic landscape of Baroque art that cochineal was introduced into, color served as a vehicle of meaning, forcing dyers and artists to begin to develop and record recipes to achieve longer lasting, brighter pigments.The most effective of these recipes formed ‘lake’ pigments, which reacted these organic dyes with metal salts to form a more stable metal complex. To achieve this ideal color, however, is complicated, and conservators today struggle to identify the many variable red lake recipes. This project developed a functional cochineal lake pigment based off early recipes, examined its light decay relative to modern pigments, and characterized some of the challenges of pigment production and the complexities of color perception. Through the use of UV-Vis spectroscopy and IR spectroscopy, the differences between a prepared and commercial pigment is assessed. These results broaden understanding on the evolution of pigment production, and the role of color, especially within the context of Italian Baroque art of the late sixteenth century. As the epicenter of theoretical and theological discussion on art and color brought on by the counter-reformation, Baroque Italy serves as a focal point for discussion on contemporary notions and understanding of color. By analyzing the works of Federico Barocci and Paolo Veronese, red can serve both as a representation of religious piety, as well a tool for artistic invention.


Lilly will be online to field comments on April 16:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST: 6-8am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

38 thoughts on “Seeing Red: Investigation of the color’s use in early baroque art and stability based upon pigment preparation”

  1. Congratulations, Lilly! I’m so proud of the work you’ve done. A wonderfully interdisciplinary project! Brava!

  2. Lilly- This looks like a very cool project. Thanks for sharing it here, and Congratulations!

  3. Congratulations Lilly! I have enjoyed getting the opportunity to work with you over the past years and see how you have been able to combine your interests in this work.

  4. Nice presentation! We recently ran the carminic acid dyes from Dr. Sobeck on the LC-Q/ToF. We a mixtures of several interesting compounds. Maybe you can help us out figuring the composition.

    1. Unfortunatly I wasn’t able to do any sort of LC-Q/ToF or other similar analysis methods on my dyes, so I’m not sure how much help I would realistically be. Still, some of my background readings touched on possible interesting degredation products, so I would love to see how your results turned out.

  5. Hi Lilly, great presentation. It was amazing to see the next steps that you talked about in the fall implemented this semester. My one question would be why did you use UV light as your source of light to test your pigments? Do most museums have UV lights on their paintings? (this is me not knowing much about art/art history)

    1. That’s a great question! I chose UVB light to mimic the harmful effect of sunlight. Because of the setup and chosen light source, the intent was to mimic how these paints would fade over months or years in an outdoor or unideal display setting in much shorter time frame. However, museums know that sunlight is bad, so they can do some really simple things to protect the works. Gallery spaces, in general, are lit with LED lights (which can contain filters to get the right color of light.) Additionally, if a gallery space has windows (which isn’t necessarilly the norm), the windows are either covered, or they filter out the harmful UV rays.

  6. Terrific integration of many fields! A real success story by any measure, and especially in the context of a global pandemic. Interesting and truly liberal-arts-y.

  7. Hi Lilly! You did such an excellent job weaving chemistry and art history together in your presentation! I really enjoyed listening to it. My question is this: What made you decide on Barocci’s Madonna of the Cherries over other works that might have been more clearly tied to cochineal? Were there other paintings that you looked at in your research that were not shown in the presentation? Thank you, and congratulations!!

    1. The problem with cochineal is that chemically it is too similar to other anthraquinone dyes to be easily identifiable. Europe already had some red-producing insects, like Kermes and Armenian Red, which used compounds like kermesic acid, alizarin, purpurin or even smaller concentrations of carminic acid to get their red tone. Many of the historical records list them simply as red lakes, rather than as their specific type, so it was very difficult to pinpoint exactly which type of red lake was used in these older works. Only recently (in the past couple decades) has it been possible to catagorize the different lakes, and most of those studies have been focused on more prominent artists and art periods. Early baroque is relativelly understudied compared to the periods that surrounded it, so I wanted to look more detail at some of those artists, even if the conection to cochineal specifically is circumstantial at best (they definitly used ‘red lakes,’ but not necessarily cochineal). I ended up looking at works by both Barocci and Paolo Veronese. Although I could have picked any of Barocci’s works, I choose the Madonna of the Cherries simply because I found that it included nearly all the artistic devices that Barocci was known to use. For Veronese, I focused on the painting The Feast in the House of Levi.

  8. Congratulations Lilly! I know how much work you put into this project over the past two years. The process was not always easy but the end result turned out great. It was a pleasure to listen to your explanation and your chosen art piece was a great representation of the topic. I am so proud of you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Wooster experience.

  9. Nice job, Lilly! Such a cool project! If you could offer advice to your Junior IS self, what would it be?

    1. I don’t have too much advice for my former self, since I think the chemistry JIS was extremly informative and I actually felt prepared going into this project, but I would probably tell myself to just make sure to keep organized, and that Zotero is definitly your friend.

  10. Hello Lily! Great work! I miss being in the lab with you! What was the most interesting topic you learned about during your research?

    1. While this didn’t really come into play in my final project, it was really interesting to explore cochineal within its original central and south american context. While little is actually recorded in comparison to European sources, the art that was produced was absolutly incredible (google Mexican featherwork mosaics). Unfortunatly, the legacy of colonialism is obviously an undercurrent in these sorts studies, which I’m glad is finally being addressed instead of being ignored.

  11. Lilly – It is exciting to see how you have blended Art and Science into such an interesting presentation. I really enjoyed it. Well done!

  12. Phenomenal job, Lilly! Your work in the lab sounds quite difficult to a non-STEM major, so I appreciate your explanations. Also, the connections you make to Baroque art, particularly Barocci’s depiction of the Virgin Mary, are intriguing! Thank you for sharing and congratulations!

  13. Congrats Lilly! I’m very proud of the work you’ve done and I know you will do amazing things after wooster 🙂

  14. This is so, so interesting and it’s really non-STEM friendly (thank you for explaining so much)! I find art history so engaging, and the way you combine it with chemistry is really fascinating. I can’t wait to see what you do next! Congratulations and great job!

  15. Hi!
    I was wondering how much variation was in the Red Dye recipes. How difficult was it to choose which variations to test? Are there any other Reds that you want to look at in the future besides cochineal?

    1. To put it simply, there was alot of variation. Just like with cooking recipes, these recipes would be tweeked and added to over time to meet the standard of the person making it. Things like amounts of each compound, heating time, order of addition all varied just a bit in every single recipe I looked at. So, I found a couple that followed the most common steps, and had actual, followable methods. With historical recipes especially, you start seeing some very interesting units of measure, and I really appreciate the few scientists before me who converted them to grams and mL.
      While there’s not a specific red I want to look at, I think it would be interesting to start chatagorizing the differences between the most common red lake pigments that would have been used.

  16. Hi Lily, congratulations on completing your IS and presenting it to us. It’s a pleasure to see how you blend your art and chemistry interests into a project. Amazing accomplishment! I have a couple of questions for you, mostly on the science side of things.

    Why do organic dyes deteriorate quickly with light? And what do you need to do with organic pigments to overcome this problem? What are the main differences between Carmine Naccarat and Cochineal Lake? Carminic acid comes from cochineal. What are other sources of organic dyes besides insects? In what ways can someone expand this project? Lastly, let us know the most exciting part of your IS experience!

    1. Thanks for all the questions, I’ll do my best to answer them all as best as I can! So, organic dyes like these are made up of mainly carbon-carbon bonds, which are easier to break apart given the energy of the wavelengths of light that I’m looking at. Inorganic pigments, which in this case usually contain transition metals like tin and aluminum, have different bonding structures and characteristics, and so require different amounts of energy to break apart. The solution to preventing dyes (the water-soluble colorant) from fading as quickly is to turn them into pigments (water-insoluble colorants) through the laking process, which combines the dye with an inorganic molecule. There’s not really a chemical solution I can think of to stop the insoluble pigment from fading, except insuring that it was made properly with as few impurities as possible, or maybe incorporating different inorganic molecules (later recipes sometimes use tin, though I haven’t researched it to know if this is better).
      Cochineal lake is just the term I used to name my compound, whereas Carmine Naccarat is the commercial name that the company used. In theory, they are both Carmine (see structure on slide 5), though mine has alot more impurities mixed in. Unfortunately, since these are historic pigments, multiple names have been used to describe the same compound.
      Organic dyes come from a variety of sources, including plants and animals. For example, a common source of red dye was madder root. Inorganic pigments come from mainly rocks and minerals.
      While this project can be expanded in multiple ways, I think it would be interesting to use something like LC-MS or GC-MS to see what sort of impurities and byproducts were formed, and how future methods could avoid forming them, if possible.
      And finally, I think for me it was just really exciting to use chemistry in a way that wasn’t super common, since I think the field can be incredibly versatile and help inform ideas in other diciplines.

  17. Hello Lilly, What a fascinating intersection of your two fields of study! Great work, and I appreciated your focus on ‘Madonna of the Cherries’ – your explanation of everything the artist had going on there was really interesting. Best of luck!

  18. Lilly – congratulations on a well finished project. It looks so good and you have so much to be proud of.

  19. This is such a cool topic, Lilly! Something this complex would go right over my head as someone very humanities-centered, but you present the information in such an approachable and understandable manner!

  20. Lily: A fantastic research project and great combination of art and chemistry. Congratulations.

  21. Hi Lilly, as someone who is not as interested in art and art history, you sure made this project interesting and easy to follow. I really appreciate how well you tied chemistry into art and vice versa. Congratulations on a job well done!

  22. I know nothing about Art and this was so interesting to learn about! Great job, Lily!

  23. Nice work, Lilly! I love that you were able to explore the historical recipes and apply them to your lab work. It was also nice to see the art history side of your project for the first time!

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