Retired Professor and Undergraduate Students Use Cutting-Edge Chemistry to Analyze Art

Dreyfus Grant Supports DePhillips and Students’ Conservation Science Research

Hartford, CT, March 25, 2015 – Henry DePhillips, Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, has been retired for almost three years, but his pace has hardly slowed. He still has a lab and office on campus and still works with students in the field of conservation science. Now, with the support of the Dreyfus Foundation’s Senior Scientist Mentor Program, DePhillips is training two undergraduate students in a cutting-edge method for analyzing paint samples without excessively disturbing historic works of art.

L-R: Henry DePhillips, Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus; Sara Talcott '17, and Jacqueline Busa '17.
 The technique, called direct analysis at room temperature, is the most current method available for analyzing the varnishes and binders used in easel paintings. The practice involves taking an extremely small sample from the painting, which allows conservation scientists to avoid invasive research on potentially priceless artworks.

The Dreyfus Grant will go to support Sara Talcott ’17 and Jacqueline Busa ’17, both sophomore chemistry majors spending the next two summers on campus studying and perfecting this technique. Having learned the basics, Talcott and Busa have been testing paints they mixed themselves. Next, they will work with older paint samples that they already know the composition of before moving on to analyzing unknown samples and paintings.

Conservation science is a valuable tool for art dealers and collectors attempting to confirm the authenticity of paintings, but DePhillips is not in the business of identifying forgeries. Instead, he provides people with objective information about the materials used in a piece of art. It’s a field that DePhillips has spent half of his career working in and continues to teach in his Science & Art course at Trinity’s Rome campus, which he’s done since 2005.

DePhillips looks forward to working remotely with Busa and Talcott this summer, confident that they have the talent and experience to move forward while he teaches in Italy. In the end, they hope to compile information useful to conservationists and publish a library of their findings. Working at the nexus of science and art has been incredibly rewarding for DePhillips.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said. “The people in the art field have incredible personalities and they’re wonderful to work with, and the people in this [chemistry] department are just the best.”

In addition to his colleagues, DePhillips is proud of his collaboration with undergraduates at the intersection of two different fields.

“That’s what a liberal arts college is supposed to foster,” he said. “I always tell students ‘Do what you’re passionate about.’ That’s why I’ve been at this for 52 years.”