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As Light Meets Matter

Art Under Scrutiny


Eleonora Del Federico
Department of Mathematics and Science
Pratt Institute
Steven T. Diver
Chemistry Department
University at Buffalo
Monika I. Konaklieva
Department of Chemistry
American University
Richard Ludescher
Department of Food Science
Rutgers University


In this dilemma case, the central character, a museum curator, must decide whether or not to show a painting as a hitherto “undiscovered” Cezanne. The stylistic analysis suggests it is for real, but data obtained using different spectroscopic techniques are inconclusive. Students study the data and then make a decision as to whether they believe the painting is authentic or a fake. Written for a general chemistry course for non-majors, the case could be used in a variety of other courses including general chemistry for science majors, introduction to spectroscopy, instrumental analysis, and conservation science. It could also be adapted for use in other non-majors science courses with the focus of discussion on how scientific data can be used to authenticate or de-authenticate a work of art.


  • Learn the basic concepts of electromagnetic radiation and its interaction with matter.
  • Learn the basics of spectroscopy and the types of information given by IR, X-ray, and UV-visible spectra.
  • Discuss the different types of data and their relevance and limitations.
  • Suggest further experiments that might be needed to resolve the dilemma.
  • Examine whether science can prove an artwork to be original and the limitations of the scientific method.


Electromagnetic radiation; spectroscopy; spectra; infrared; IR; X-ray; ultra-violet; UV-visible; UV-vis; art analysis; art forgery; Cezanne

Topical Areas

Scientific method

Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods

Analysis (Issues), Dilemma/Decision, Discussion



Subject Headings

Chemistry (General)  |   Analytical Chemistry  |  

Date Posted


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Lili Velez

Independent Scholar

I've used this case for several years as an "Art Mystery" case with non-science undergraduates in a rhetoric course to show how different types of "experts" accept different kinds of evidence when they are making arguments. Even when the students struggle with the scientific concepts, they make great progress in understanding why it is that experts could come to conflicting conclusions. And, to make things more interesting, every few years there are real cases in the news that I can use to demonstrate these concepts - the latest is this article in the New York Times: "Possible Forging of Modern Art Is Investigated," by Patricia Cohen, December 2, 2011, at