two people examine a portrait, painted in 1784, that is being restored
Students study a painting of Colonel William Stephens Smith (1755-1816), painted by John Trumbull (American) in 1784.

“It starts with burning coal and ends with psychology,” says Assistant Professor of Chemistry Chris Durr, standing with his students around an 18th-century painting in his latest laboratory: the Mead Art Museum.

He is explaining one way a scientist might look at art appreciation, a path from subatomic particles to the emotions.

“Somewhere there is a fossil-fuel plant burning coal that sends electricity to these lights. And these lights have gasses in them which produce a cool, white light,” he tells students. “That goes into the pigment of that painting, interacts with all these different pigments that the artist painstakingly chose and painstakingly applied to that piece of canvas, and the light hits that pigment and comes back to your eye as red, or blue, or black.”

A group small of people examine a 17th century painting
Chris Durr shines blue and red light (see below) on paintings. Painting by Giacinto Gimignano, “Narcissus (and Echo and Two Nymphs)”, 17th century, Italian
Two people examine a 17th century painting

Deep in the Mead’s archives, students gather around samples of raw minerals such as arsenic and malachite, alongside works for which they were used as pigment. Back at their main lab at the Science Center, they pick apart the atomic structures that make red, red.

The art unit of his introductory chemistry course grew out of Durr’s own appreciation of art, and the idea that there is something to be learned from art’s connections with science.

two minerals
Minerals used as raw materials in paint on loan from Beneski Museum; azurite is the blue mineral (at left) and malachite is the green one.

“I know almost nothing about art from a technical point of view. The last art class I took was in middle school, but I know that I enjoy it,” he says. “All of our students can relate to art, because they can look at it and they can have a feeling, and that feeling is neither right nor wrong. So it’s something that they can experience in one way, and then have a deeper understanding of it by using the chemistry that they learned in the class.”

This isn’t simply about making art more palatable for scientists, or making science more palatable for artists, however. Juxtaposing the two disciplines adds depth to both in ways that each can bring back to the lab and studio.

“There is chemistry happening, and it’s our job and duty to see that in our environment,” says Emily A. Potter-Ndiaye, head of education and the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs for the Mead. “Even in a museum, art history is not the only discipline in a work of art. Any number of disciplines come to the same collections with a different focus, essential questions, problem sets.”

A woman gestures towards a large painting
Emily Potter-Ndiaye with a painting by Frans Snyders; Flemish (1579-1657). Title: Larder with a Servant; ca. 1635-1640

On the flip side, there is a great intuitive knowledge that artists have to have about the chemistry, Durr says.

“While we think of it in terms of specific atoms with electron configurations and really dig down into the depth of the science, again, [artists] just talk about it in a different way,” Durr says. “What works? What colors stick around and which ones bleach, and how does this age over time, and can I put this pigment on top of this pigment, and what color will it turn?”

Artists grapple with new discoveries as much as scientists, he says, indicating the Dimensionism exhibit now at the Mead, which is the subject of a class trip.

“Quantum mechanics is hard, and you’re going to grapple with it,” he tells the students. “What you see on the walls here are the artists doing the exact same thing you’re about to do, grappling with: What does it mean for light to be a wave and a particle at the same time?”

Durr believes, “If we really want our students to be able to think nimbly about both sciences and the arts, we want them to come at it from both angles and have a shared appreciation for both, and where they overlap, without doing one as a vehicle for the other.”

students examining artwork on display in the Mead Art Museum
Chemistry students study paintings in the Mead’s classroom.

This approach is working.

“I have a greater appreciation for art and a greater appreciation for chemistry,” says Montana Travis ’22, adding that she is definitely leaning toward concentrating in art and chemistry at Amherst. “I took chemistry for fun and kind of fell in love with it, and I’ve been doing art for long time.”

Durr says he wants to keep pushing that boundary between the arts and sciences, and is developing an independent course with Sonya Clark ‘89, professor of art and the history of art.

“Luckily, here, I have great colleagues that are just game for anything, so willing to help and so knowledgeable,” Durr says, “that they can really make these things shine in a dimension that I couldn’t do all on my own.”