Paint the town red
Beyond majors: Develop your integrated thinking
Professor of Art History
The Cloisters, the venerable branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that contains a world-class collection of medieval art and architecture, chooses only eight summer interns from more than 250 applicants. Kyra DeTone was one of them, having impressed the selection committee with her vast knowledge of the chemistry and historical significance of vermillion, a reddish pigment used widely in the Middle Ages.
No one is prouder of Kyra’s accomplishment than her art history professor, Louisa Matthew. Professor Matthew and her colleague, Chemistry Professor Mary Carroll, co-teach The Art and Science of Painting, a key course in Kyra’s unique fusion of art and science.
“I was drawn to the course because of the lab component,” she says. “We got to make our own paints, a tempera and an oil. It sounded cool – and it was!”
Professor Matthew had us pick a pigment to study throughout the term. Red is my favorite color, so I chose vermillion. I had no idea there was so much to it. I went through every National Gallery of London Technical Bulletin (the source for the study of painting techniques and materials) and studied cross-sections of vermillion paint chips throughout time. Vermillion is essentially a man-made version of the mineral cinnabar, which had been used as a red coloring for centuries.
We tend to think of man-made pigments as starting in the 19th century, but people were manufacturing pigments for hundreds of years before then. We have evidence of vermillion makers in Venice in the Middle Ages. The pigment was synthesized out of mercury and sulfur, which they would heat. You can imagine it was a pretty stinky job, burning mercury and sulfur together.
I found a manuscript from an ancient vermillion maker. It called for building a brick hut, but without binding the bricks with mortar because they needed ventilation in the hut. It also said to eat lunch before you make a batch of vermillion because the fumes will make you lightheaded!
There was a lot of pollution back then. It was the reason everybody died before age 40.
Vermillion was highly prized because it was such a pure red, so it was often used for religious painting in the Middle Ages. They needed vermillion to paint the blood of Christ and the red robes of the Virgin Mary.
They moved from tempera – painting with the pigment mixed with egg whites or egg yolks – to oil painting over the course of the 1400s.
Blended with oil, vermillion makes an extremely vibrant paint. It couldn’t be used for frescos, however, because no matter how finely you grind the powder, it still holds a crystalline structure that can’t blend with water. I could tell the Cloisters selection committee was impressed that I knew all of this.
Typical undergraduate students could maybe say that they took a course on medieval art. But for Kyra to pull out the chemistry of vermillion and how it’s been used over time must have been quite a surprise for the Metropolitan committee.
It’s all thanks to Professor Matthew. She’s incredibly knowledgeable about the history of pigments, and you can tell she enjoys it. I love learning about art history from people who want to share their knowledge. It’s contagious.
Kyra is a fun student to teach. She lights a fire under all of us.
Convergence: Jakub Kaczmarzyk,
neuroscience and music