Digital Tour – Vivid View: The Art and Science of Paint Analysis

Study wallpaper, Monticello

Image of wallpaper in study, Monticello

Photo by Dr. Susan Buck. Courtesy of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

What appears at first glance as a glimpse into a jeweled cave or distant galaxy, is in actuality the pigments from the green paint on a tiny scrap of wallpaper. Recently discovered, this wallpaper contains significant new information about a room connected to Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual life. Captured here are the small pigment particles that were gently scraped from a fragment of green wallpaper photographed 1000 times its original size. Recently found on the plaster above an arched doorway in the study at Monticello, the wallpaper’s existence initially generated questions about the room’s decoration during and after Jefferson’s residency. The new evidence helps to resolve these questions while prompting a reconsideration of the study’s restoration.

This photo of paint pigments under plane polarized transmitted light reveals its original color, approximate date, and material content of the wallpaper. With this technique, the characteristic optical properties of the different pigments composing the green paint are revealed. For example, in transmitted light the copper-based pigment green verditer is characterized by its brilliant translucent green coloring. Other identifiable pigments include chrome green, Prussian blue, chrome yellow, calcium carbonate, and clumps of iron oxide red-brown.

The presence of chrome yellow (needed to mix chrome green) dates the wallpaper to the first quarter of the nineteenth century. First arriving on European painters’ palettes between 1804 and 1809, chrome yellow is documented as being available in the United States as early as 1812. While the incorporation of chrome yellow and chrome green into paints for French and English wallpapers requires further research, the evidence suggests this green paper is from the time of Thomas Jefferson’s retirement to Monticello. These findings inform the restored appearance of Thomas Jefferson’s study recently completed as part of the multi-year restoration campaign, The Mountaintop Project: Revealing Jefferson’s Monticello.

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