Rathgen-Forschungslabor Supports NDR Investigation: Art Thriller Surrounding Emil Nolde’s Sonnenblumen


The Rathgen-Forschungslabor (Rathgen Research Laboratory) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is providing chemical analyses to help solve the art mystery surrounding Emil Nolde’s first Sonnenblumen painting (1926), in the collection of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR, North German Broadcasting).

The Sonnenblumen painting, possibly the first version in a series by Nolde with a similar motif, was scientifically examined on the behalf of the NDR to ascertain if it was indeed the missing painting or just a copy. The painting was brought to the Rathgen-Forschungslabor for six weeks of laboratory analysis.

Scientific Examination of the Sonnenblumen Painting

The Rathgen-Forschungslabor has various analytical tools at its disposal with which it can determine the painting materials used and the condition of a painting. Nolde painted with natural pigments as well as with modern, synthetic colourants. In some cases the latter’s production or commercial distribution can be dated precisely to a specific year, verifying their presence as proof of a copy.

The Rathgen-Forschungslabor examined the Sonnenblumen painting with digital microscopy, Raman as well as infrared spectroscopy, and X-ray fluorescence analysis. Non-invasive methods were initially used to identify the painting technique and pigments. Nine microsamples were taken to determine the binders and fillers and possibly stabilisers in the paint layers as well as by-products of aging.

These scientific examinations were augmented by comparing photographs of the painting’s current condition with historical images of the artwork. The aim was to uncover specific differences between the historical photographs and the current condition of the painting and to detect the possible presence of certain synthetic colourants and binders first used by artists after the Second World War, which would indicate a later period of origin for the painting.

The Findings of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor

All examinations confirmed that the painting technique and art materials used were consistent with the presumed period of origin and Nolde’s working methods.

  • The analysis of materials and painting techniques undertaken at selected measurement points on the work in its current condition revealed no materials or artistic techniques that were atypical of the period of origin of Emil Nolde’s painting Sonnenblumen (1926).
  • The painting shows changes of colour, especially typical darkening, that can be associated with characteristic signs of pigment aging.
  • No evidence of colourants or binders from a later date could be found, which argues against a copy of the Nolde painting.
  • The comparison of the historical photographs of the lost painting by Emil Nolde with the present painting also revealed very striking correspondences.