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Technique reveals buried paintings in new way

Aug. 19, 2009
Courtesy American Chemical Society
and World Science staff

A new X-ray tech­nique has re­vealed never-seen de­tails of a paint­ing hid­den be­neath an­oth­er paint­ing by famed Amer­i­can il­lus­tra­tor N.C. Wy­eth, sci­en­tists re­port.

The “non-destructive” see-through meth­od could re­veal hid­den im­ages in hun­dreds of Old Mas­ter paint­ings and oth­er prized art­works, the re­search­ers say.

The picture hid­den be­neath art­ist N. C. Wyeth's paint­ing Fam­ily Portrait. (Cred­it: Bran­dy­wine Riv­er Mu­se­um)


The sci­en­tists re­ported the re­search Aug. 19 at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Chem­i­cal So­ci­e­ty in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., “call­ing it the most ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive ap­proach to date” for re­vealing bur­ied im­ages in paint­ings.

Many great artists re-used can­vases or cov­ered paint­ings with oth­er paint­ings, to save mon­ey or to let the col­ors and shapes of a pri­or com­po­si­tion in­flu­ence the next one.

Wy­eth, who lived from 1882 to 1945, is wide­ly con­sid­ered one of the great­est Amer­i­can il­lus­tra­tors of the 20th cen­tu­ry. But art his­to­ri­ans be­lieve sev­er­al of his best il­lustr­a­t­ions have been lost from view through paint­ing-over, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers, Jen­ni­fer Mass of the Uni­vers­ity of Del­a­ware and col­leagues.

One of these “lost” pictures de­picts a dra­mat­ic fist fight and was pub­lished in a 1919 Ev­ery­body’s Mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle ti­tled “The Mildest Man­nered Man.” Us­ing sim­ple X-ray tech­niques, sci­en­tists then showed that Wy­eth had cov­ered the fight scene with an­oth­er paint­ing, “Fami­ly Por­trait.” 

The overlying painting, Fam­ily Portrait. (Cred­it: Bran­dy­wine Riv­er Mu­se­um)


But un­til now, the fi­ne de­tail and col­ors in the fight scene have been lost from view, said Mass. No­body has seen the true im­age ex­cept in black and white re­pro­duc­tions.

The new in­stru­ment, called a con­fo­cal X-ray flu­o­res­cence mi­cro­scope, was de­vel­oped at the Cor­nell High En­er­gy Syn­chro­tron Source na­t­ional X-ray facil­ity. The in­stru­ment re­veals min­ute de­tails in hid­den paint­ings with­out re­mov­ing paint sam­ples. It shoots X-ray beams in­to a paint­ing and then col­lects flu­o­res­cent X-ray “sig­nals” giv­en off by the chem­i­cals in the var­i­ous paint lay­ers. Sci­en­tists can link each sig­nal to spe­cif­ic paint pig­ments. 

In ad­di­tion to re­vealing the orig­i­nal im­age, the meth­od is pro­vid­ing new in­form­a­t­ion on Wy­eth’s ma­te­ri­als and meth­ods, ac­cord­ing to Mass.


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A new X-ray technique has revealed new details of a painting hidden beneath another painting by famed American illustrator N.C. Wyeth, scientists report. The “non-destructive” see-through method could reveal hidden images in hundreds of Old Master paintings and other prized artworks, the researchers say. The scientists reported the research at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society on Aug. 19, “calling it the most efficient and effective approach to date” for revealing buried images in paintings. Many great artists re-used canvases or covered paintings with other paintings, to save money or to let the colors and shapes of a prior composition influence the next one. Wyeth, who lived from 1882 to 1945, is wide ly considered one of the greatest American illustrators of the 20th century. But art historians believe several of his best illustr ations have been lost from view through painting-over, according to the researchers, Jennifer Mass of the Un ivers ity of Delaware and colleagues. One of these so-called lost illustr ations depicts a dramatic fist fight and was published in a 1919 Everybody’s Magazine article titled “The Mildest Mannered Man.” Using simple X-ray techniques, other scientists previous ly showed that Wyeth had covered the fight scene with another painting, “Fami ly Portrait.” But un til now, the fine detail and colors in the fight scene have been lost from view, said Mass. Nobody has seen the true image except in black and white reproductions. The new instrument, called a confocal X-ray fluorescence microscope, was developed at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source n ational X-ray facil ity. The instrument reveals minute details in hidden paintings without removing paint samples. It shoots X-ray beams into a painting and then collects fluorescent X-ray “signals” given off by the chemicals in the various paint layers. Scientists can link each signal to specific paint pigments. In addition to revealing the original image, the method is providing new inform ation on Wyeth’s materials and methods, according to Mass.