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Electrical and Computer Engineering

Professor Johnson's sleuthing helps identify lost Van Gogh (September 2013)


A Rice University professor's super sleuthing made the connection between a painting once thought to be a fake Vincent van Gogh and a real -- and famous -- van Gogh at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH).

Don Johnson, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice, performed an X-ray analysis of the canvas behind "Sunset at Montmajour," which has been determined to be authentic by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

"I pointed out the very close, but not exact, relationship of this painting to the only van Gogh in the MFAH," Johnson said. "Apparently, this pointed them in the direction of examining the Houston painting for a more detailed comparison."

The RocksThe painting's canvas was a match for "The Rocks," owned by the MFAH.

Johnson has become well-known in the art world for his detailed analysis of canvas used by the masters, particularly by van Gogh. He and a colleague at the University of Arizona developed a computer program to analyze aspects of the canvases behind the paintings of van Gogh and others that cannot be seen in any other way.

The signal-processing algorithm automatically counts the thread density in a canvas through X-rays to reveal previously unavailable details about the materials of the masters. The process creates a canvas "fingerprint" for art historians, who previously had to count threads by hand and eye.

A cover story about the discovery will appear in the October issue of The Burlington Magazine. The discovery was also reported in September 9's New York Times.

— Mike Williams, Rice University Public Affairs