Technical Art History


Technical art history is concerned with artworks as physical objects. It studies artistic practice in all its facets and constructs the object’s material biography, from artistic idea to the object’s present state.


Technical art history is a strand within art history that focuses on object-based research, combining traditional art historical enquiry with insights from science and technology. An in-depth understanding of techniques, production processes and uses of materials by artists and artisans may help to answer existing art historical questions in more comprehensive ways and open up new lines of enquiry. Important subjects for investigation are the role of art technological knowledge transfer through treatises and other written instructions, as well as building skill and exchange of embodied knowledge in the artist’s and artisan’s workshop; the interaction between artistic ideas, technical innovations and stylistic developments; and the mobility of makers, techniques and materials. The new knowledge thus acquired, combined with digital humanities methods, will lead to a better understanding of trends, patterns and transformations in the history of art production.


Prof. dr. Erma Hermens

Rijksmuseum / UvA

The Girl in the spotlight

Composite image made from technical images of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665, Mauritshuis). Credit: Sylvain Fleur + the Girl in the Spotlight team.

For a technical (re-)examination of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, conducted in February-March 2018, several complementary imaging techniques were employed. These techniques included: technical photography, multispectralinfrared reflectography, reflectance and fluorescence imaging spectroscopy (hyperspectral imaging), fibreoptic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS), multi-scale scanning optical coherence tomography (MS-OCT), 3D colour/(gloss)/topography scanning, 3D digital microscopy, macroscopicX-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) and macroscopicX-ray powder diffraction (MA-XRPD). Also, the samples mounted in 1994 were re-examined, and new forms of microscopic, organic and inorganic analysis were carried out to identify the pigments and binding media. Advances in computation and data science allow the results of these techniques to be co-registered and compared, and new results to be generated. The (re-)examination in this way of the painting will produce new insights into its present condition and into the materials and techniques Vermeer used to produce the famous image.