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Senior Chemistry Major Sean Murphy Uses Electron Microscope to Analyze 18th Century Painting

Public Relations
Posted: Wednesday Apr 24, 2013

April 24, 2013

Saint Vincent College chemistry major Sean Murphy’s senior research project started with a rumor.

“This project actually started with something I overheard in the chemistry lab when I was a teaching assistant for an organic chemistry course,” Murphy explained. “Students were claiming that a very large 18th century painting that hangs in the second floor hallway of Alfred Hall showed evidence that a portion of a woman’s chest had been painted over to reveal less of it,” Murphy shared. “I was thinking that it was just another Saint Vincent tale so I took at look at it myself and sure enough it seemed that there were brushstrokes that did not match the original.”

The 18th century painting – Queen Esther before King Ahasuerus – by an unknown artist, was a gift from King Ludwig I of Bavaria to Boniface Wimmer more than 167 years ago. “I decided to make it the object of my senior research and to chemically and spectrally investigate if any overpainting may have occurred, when the defacement happened and to prove that the painting itself was actually 18th century,” Murphy explained.

To implement his research, Murphy utilized Saint Vincent College’s Hitachi variable pressure scanning electron microscope or SEM in the instrument lab of the Sis and Herman Dupré Science Pavilion. The sophisticated instrument has the ability to provide clear viewing of samples at magnification of up to 35,000 times the original – far beyond the capabilities of an optical microscope.

“I arranged with Saint Vincent art collection curator Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B., to take some tiny samples from the painting,” Murphy explained, “though my first attempt was to use reflectance spectroscopy through the aid of a Xenon lamp to study the different spectra collected. With the SEM I was able to chemically analyze various samples to discover which elements were present. I was able to find certain elements that weren’t used in paints until the 19th century. That confirmed right away that the overpainting wasn’t original. Further analysis confirmed that the original paint was primarily lead, showing evidence of pigments which aren’t used too much anymore. The fact that I found barium so prominently in the suspect area compared to the undercoat of lead is pretty significant as well.”

“I also utilized UV or black light to analyze the painting,” Murphy continued, “and you can see clearly that there was a portion of the painting that was covered up – the portion on the woman’s breast – by the fact that the suspect area fluoresced splotchy and dark, while the “original paint” fluoresced much brighter.”

Thus, the research confirmed that the painting was painted over sometime during or after the 19th century. “This is the subject of my senior research and I am hoping this research will be useful in the future for anyone who wants to analyze other paintings,” Murphy added.

Murphy’s research supervisor, Dr. Steven Gravelle, had asked last semester if he wanted to spend some time learning how to use the SEM. “Dr. Gravelle and Dr. Paul Follansbee were very generous in teaching me how to use this very expensive and sophisticated instrument,” Murphy related, “I wanted to do something in appreciation for their time so I wrote a manual on standard operating procedures that will be useful to other student users.”

While conducting his research and learning to use the SEM, Murphy decided he may want to get into technical sales of SEMs after he graduates. “I would enjoy teaching people how to use these instruments and interacting with them,” he said. In the meantime, he is completing his student teaching in chemistry at Greensburg Salem Senior High School in preparation for receiving teaching certification.

Murphy has been active in other areas of campus as well, serving as chairperson of the Council of Presidents, and serving as residence life chairperson for the Student Government Association, heading up a capital development project to install a kitchen in Alcuin Hall, and serving as president of the mixed martial arts club. He also has worked in the athletic department, in the chemistry department and giving tours to prospective students as an admissions ambassador.

Murphy said that he has really enjoyed his educational experience at Saint Vincent. “I remember coming here to visit on a beautiful fall day while I was still in high school and sat in on some chemistry classes. Later, I asked how to get back to the admission office and the teacher, Dr. Jason Vohs, personally walked me back and discussed my interest in chemistry. That was a deciding factor for me and it’s been like that through my entire four years. The professors really care about your education.”

“Sean has learned a lot,” Gravelle commented. “He has learned what he wants to do with his future career. It has really helped that he learned how to use the scanning electron microscope and about data analysis. This is not a simple instrument to learn or use. But I think that everyone has benefited from Sean’s research. It’s been a model research project for us and that’s what we want students to do, to take off on their own and discover what they enjoy. Sean has definitely done that and I think he has definitely discovered what he enjoys doing.”

Murphy, who in addition to his major in chemistry has a double minor in education and philosophy, is the son of Tom and Effie Murphy of Marlton, New Jersey and a graduate of Cherokee High School in Marlton.

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Photo: Sean Murphy, left, sits at the controls of Saint Vincent College’s scanning electron microscope, with Dr. Steven Gravelle, associate professor of chemistry, his research supervisor. 

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PR2013-156