Face to Face Human Faces through the Prism of Technical Art History

2019 > 2024

Promotor(s) : Prof. Dr. David Strivay (Centre Européen d’Archéométrie, ULiège) & Prof. Dr. Francisca Vandepitte (Modern Art Department, RMFAB/VUB)

Researcher(s) : Dr. Catherine Defeyt (ULiège/RMFAB)

The project Face to Face, aims to throw a new light on the representation of the human faces in Western painting, through the prism of technical art history


The making processes and the painting materials used for faces reflect arbitrary and personal choices by artists as well as the influence of a place, a period of time, a school, a style. For this reason, but also for obvious conservation concerns, the study of artists’ painting materials and techniques is a necessary task.

Face To Face conducts the first large-scale and transversal scientific research on the making processes of painted faces, focused on the study of materials and techniques of hunderds of faces, executed by more than 75 masters represented in the paintings collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The main objective of this research is to collect technical and material information, sufficiently abundant and significant, to distinguish pragmatism, tradition, innovation and idiosyncrasy. For this purpose European  and Belgian masterpieces executed between the 15th and 20th centuries, representative and/or emblematic of the RMFAB’s collection are investigated in situ by means of complementary non-invasive techniques.

The set of imaging and analytical techniques that are applied includes hyperspectral imagery (HSI), X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), Fourier-Transform Infra-Red spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman spectroscopy (RS), high-resolution photography, digital microscopy, infrared reflectography (IRR) and X-ray radiography (XRR). The comparative study of a such extended corpus, covering different time frames and countries, through the same panel of non-destructive methods will provide a wide range of material evidences, which should allow formulating conclusive remarks about the influence and the impact of the painters’ environment on their ways of depicting faces. Regarding the ensembles of paintings by artists, the comparative and systematic study of the faces in the same experimental conditions will point out a material and/or technical signature of the authors.

Face-to-Face is a Fed-tWin project, supported by BELSPO, Belgian Science Policy Office.