Behind the EyesVivian Apple reflects on art, science, and time through a centuries-old painting's restoration.
A delicate hand resting on an old mahogany table. Dusty yellow feathers woven into a fluffy bouffan. Golden filigree glimmering on an opulent dress, reflecting the light of bygone years. And eyes. Knowing eyes with a piercing gaze set into a noble brow gaze across the room with the unaffected air of an aristocrat of many centuries ago – all immortalized into canvas and crowned with an ornate wooden frame.
A hand clutching a cell phone. A hair tie messily holding up brown hair. Navy blue of an embroidered “Duke University” sweater. And eyes. My eyes, flitting back and forth across a bright, high-ceiling, room, excitedly examining all of the mobiles dangling from the ceiling, paintings resting on large easels, and bright shards of glass sparkling on the workbench. Turning my head to see what other wonders lie in this room, I see her.
We lock eyes. Twenty year old brown eyes meet brown eyes of four hundred years; 21st Century meets 17th Century. To her, I am just another viewer, another admirer, another pair of eyes. How many eyes has she met during her time? Interesting
circumstances have occurred for us to cross paths. Traversing time and the Atlantic Ocean, traveling down Interstate 40 and Chapel Drive – now we meet in the 21st Century, in a conservation studio at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Even though she is enveloped in four centuries worth of dust, varnish, and the sediments of time, her stare is nonetheless intimidating. Feeling nervous under her gaze, I break our eye contact and focus my attention on the talented art conservator standing next to her.
The art conservator introduces her as a Mystery Lady of the 17th century and describes what the Lady would have looked like if restored to her former glory. The dusty yellow feathers in her hair were originally a bright canary yellow; the table cloth, a vibrant vermillion; the drapes, a ruby red. The conservator then showed us an approximation of what the Lady portrait would have looked like with her original coloring, a regal rendering of days gone by.
However, as the conservator continued with her narrative about the Mystery Lady, she began to focus less and less on the Lady herself and more on the science that would be required to revamp the Lady’s portrait. Because the restoration for the Lady was primarily concerned with paint, in order to learn more about the pigment’s chemical makeup and color composition, methods like Raman spectroscopy and microprobing were employed. A budding chemist and self taught “art historian” (special thanks to Wikipedia and Baumgartner Restoration’s Youtube channel), I couldn’t believe the practices I had learned about in organic chemistry were being used to revitalize pieces of art I had read about in encyclopedias and art gallery brochures!
To me, the most special part of the visit to the conversation studio at the North Carolina Museum of Art was seeing how scientific practices are at the forefront of peeling back the years of dust, varnish, grime, and unspoken stories to better understand a piece of art. Art is an expression of the human condition, the body, mind, and soul, so using chemistry to dissect art helps us a viewers get one step closer to understanding what message the artist wanted to leave behind, understanding the artist’s “present”, and perhaps most importantly, how the artist used their own eyes to make sense of their world and translate their worldview into something eyes centuries beyond will be able to appreciate and understand.
Next time you walk around a museum or an art gallery and lock eyes with a painting, think about all the things those eyes have seen and appreciate how twists of fate and science brought you together. What’s behind those eyes?
Vivian Apple, Huang Fellow ’26
Vivian Apple is a freshman from Fort Smith, Arkansas who is interested in pursuing a double major in Chemistry with a concentration in physical chemistry and Asia and Middle Eastern Studies with a concentration in Chinese.