Intern Profile: Thomas Francis, YUAG New Haven Promise Intern, delves into the study of historic pigments at the IPCH scientific laboratories

July 20, 2015

Thomas Francis is a rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut majoring in Chemistry and a recipient of a 2014 New Haven Promise Scholarship. He is one of several New Haven Promise Interns at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) who get an immersive summer experience in what goes on “behind the scenes” of a museum while also receiving training and mentoring. Thomas was drawn to an opportunity in the Conservation Department of the Art Gallery after attending an internship fair and learning about the important role of chemistry and scientific research in the field of conservation from YUAG Objects Conservator Carol Snow. Carol worked with Anikó Bezur and Paul Whitmore, scientists at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, to craft an internship opportunity for Thomas, which would offer him hands-on experience with the variety of instrumental materials analysis techniques used to the study of artists’ pigments.

One of Thomas’ projects involves the use of Raman and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy to create new reference spectra of pigments, which are needed for the characterization of microscopic samples from cultural heritage objects. Using the newly acquired spectra as well as existing spectral libraries, Thomas is working to identify the historic pigments in the Art Gallery’s set of the Forbes Collection of Pigments. This world-famous pigment collection was assembled by Edward W. Forbes, a former director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, during the first part of the 20th century. While the YUAG set of pigments came to Yale from that collection, the complete information on the original Forbes collection bottles did not. As a result, it is now Thomas’s job to verify the identity of the YUAG pigments and match it to the Forbes collection indexing system, with the help of YUAG Painting Conservator Irma Passeri, who has been overseeing the documentation and organization of Yale’s Forbes Collection. Conservators at YUAG and the scientists at IPCH, including Erin Mysak and Jens Stenger who helped train and supervise Thomas, are eager to increase the utility and accessibility of this important set of reference materials. Thomas’ work will make an important contribution toward this goal.

In addition to the analysis of these reference pigments to establish their identity and make them usable as comparisons, Thomas is also working on a research project investigating the deterioration of a unique dye which was used to make traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. An especially beautiful blue color in these prints was made using a dye called dayflower blue, which is extracted from the petals of that flower. This particular dye is notable not only for its color, but also for its delicacy: the dye is very water-sensitive, and the blue color can easily be turned to a muddy brown with water contact. Thomas is studying the chemistry of this transformation, and particularly aiming to discover whether the analysis of the brown degraded color on a print can reveal whether the original dayflower blue had once been present.

According to Thomas, he was initially attracted to working at the Conservation Department of the Art Gallery and IPCH by the opportunity to gain experience in chemical analysis. In addition to learning new analytical skills, and to applying what he had learned about spectroscopic methods during his freshman year, Thomas has also been enjoying the close view of the treatment projects being undertaken by conservators of the Art Gallery, the British Art Center, and the Peabody Museum, who are working in the newly opened IPCH Conservation Laboratory adjacent to the science labs. Regular meetings with other New Haven Promise Interns and staff at the Art Gallery are providing Thomas with a thorough introduction to the collections at Yale. He is especially interested in Japanese culture and credits an Asian Art History course he took at the University of Connecticut with piquing his interest in an internship in the Conservation Department and IPCH. During his 2016 Spring semester, Thomas plans to study abroad in Japan as an exchange student. His summer internship has been tailored to try to match his interests in learning analytical techniques as applied to the study of art objects and learning more about the material culture of Japan.