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Detective Work: An interdisciplinary dive into the history of American art

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Maggie Davis

Maggie Davis doesn’t look like a detective. She doesn’t wear a trenchcoat, a fedora or carry a magnifying glass. But she’s solving a mystery that dates back to the early years of the United States and the birth of the American artistic tradition.

It began with a simple question: Who is the man in red?

The man in red

Davis, an art history major at Penn State, was discussing her hopes to combine her love of both art history and the physical sciences with Patrick McGrady, a curator at the Palmer Museum of Art, who showed her a number of mysterious pieces with unanswered questions in the museum’s collection. One painting in particular stood out to her: a portrait of a man in regal crimson attire, painted by an unknown artist.

Who was this enigmatic figure? When, where, why and by whom had his likeness been immortalized in pigment? Davis found herself a bona fide mystery, one she had the training and tools to solve through her art history and biochemistry studies.

“Ever since high school, I knew I wanted to combine science and history, to use science to study history, and when I took my first art history class here at Penn State, I fell in love with the field,” said Davis. “Now, through this project, I’m really able to take everything I’ve learned and figure out how to apply science to answer real-world questions.”

Full story, by Michael Martin Garrett