New Ways to See Behind Old Master Paintings

Scientists are using a new technology to look beneath old paintings to see paintings that are painted underneath. Scientists are using Macro X-ray Fluorescence to see what’s behind some...


Scientists are using a new technology to look beneath old paintings to see paintings that are painted underneath. Scientists are using Macro X-ray Fluorescence to see what’s behind some of the old masters. A Rembrandt painting called “Old Man in Military Costume” has a hidden painting underneath. The painting is hung in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The 380 year old painting has another secret portrait behind the Old Man in Military Costume. Scientists had tried before to see behind the old master, but because Rembrandt had used the same paint to paint both they were unable to see what was painted underneath.

Macro X-Ray Fluorescence

Macro x-ray fluorescence has been around for years, but until recently paintings had to be transported to the site where the machine was located. With the advancement of a new mobile machine these paintings can now be scanned on site. This will allow the paintings to stay where they are hung, so there is no risk from changes in humidity, or danger of damaging them while moving them to the machine will happen.

In the past researchers used a technology called infra-red reflectography, but this method was limited by how thick the paint was. The new macro x-ray fluorescence machine, created by Matthias Alfeld, will now allow researchers to see what’s behind old paintings without damaging them.

So far this technology has been used on more than 20 paintings from the 16th to the 19th century. Different elements of the paint shows up differently when bombarded with x-rays, this will also allow scientist to prove if a painting is a fake or the genuine article. The new x-ray technology is being used on Philipp Otto Runge’s painting named Pauline in a White Dress. They can now see that the girl once had ribbons painted in her hair but that the artist painted over those details in the final portrait.

Studying the Calming Effect of Rembrandt

The success of this x-ray technology will aid researchers to study Rembrandt paintings, they plan to use this new technology to determine the best way to proceed with an upcoming study that is planned. In a past study of Rembrandt, researchers revealed why his paintings have such a calming effect when looked at. Researchers now believe that Rembrandt put more details around the eyes and that is why his paintings have the calming effect when viewed.

Researchers feel x-ray technology developed by Matthias Alfeld will let them look at paintings in a new way. They think this will be like looking over the artists shoulder while he paints. It will give them an even better understanding of the paintings and the artist that painted them.

The new x-ray method was presented at the American Chemical Society meeting in Anaheim, Calif, in March. The new x-ray technology give scientists hope that they will finally be able to see who the portrait is beneath the Old Man in Military Costume is. The secret or hidden portrait has been studied with infrared, neutron and conventional x-ray methods, but scientists could not see the portrait beneath because Rembrandt had used the same paints on both portraits. With the new x-ray method, researchers now have hope to finding out who is hidden behind the Old Man in Military Costume painting.

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