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Explained: How X-Rays reveal Van Gogh, Picasso’s hidden paintings under existing works

In recent years x-ray photography and other technologies have helped detect hidden works of Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Rembrandt.

Van gogh portrait detected by X-rayVan Gogh's self-portrait detected under cardboard and glue and Head of a Peasant Woman by Vincent Van Gogh are displayed, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain. (Neil Hanna/Handout via REUTERS)

At a time when paintings of western masters are fetching astronomical amounts, x-ray studies have revealed two artworks underneath canvases by Vincent van Gogh and Amedeo Modigliani this week.

While Dutch master Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman in the collection of National Galleries of Scotland has a hidden self-portrait, curators at Israel’s Hecht Museum have identified three previously unknown sketches by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani beneath his 1908 canvas Nude with a Hat.

Though such discoveries are rare, they are not unprecedented–in recent years, with the advent of x-ray photography and other non-invasive technologies, hidden works have been detected under the works of numerous other masters, including Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Rembrandt.

How the Van Gogh self-portrait was discovered

With few of his works selling during his lifetime, Van Gogh was known to reuse canvases to save money. Experts discovered the self-portrait at the National Galleries of Scotland who were cataloguing the canvas Head of a Peasant Woman for an exhibition on French impressionism at the Royal Scottish Academy. At the back of the 1885 work, the self-portrait has remained hidden for more than 100 years beneath layers of glue and cardboard. Researchers are now analysing how the two works can be separated without causing harm to either. It is believed that the work belongs to a series of experimental self-portraits made by the Dutch post-impressionist–one of the most influential figures in Western art history.

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The findings on the Modigliani canvas

An unusual painting, Modigliani’s 1908 canvas Nude with a Hat was already famous for the two portraits painted on its opposite sides–while one side has a nude figure, the other has a portrait of his mistress, Maud Abrantès, in the other direction. In 2010, the curator of Hecht Museum noticed the eyes of a third figure under Abrantès’ collar, and an x-ray was recently conducted to study those details when the presence of two more portraits was revealed, one of a man and another of a woman with her hair in a bun.

The forensic study of the canvas was being conducted before it travels for an exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Now known to contain five of Modigliani’s works, the canvas belongs to a period when Modigliani was still struggling to find buyers. In 2018, x-ray technology revealed a formerly unknown portrait of the artist’s partner Beatrice Hastings under one of his masterpieces Portrait of a Girl.

How x-rays are used to study art

While there are different techniques and technologies that are now designed to study art, the use of x-rays to examine artworks can be traced to the first decade of the 20th century. The first documented use of x-rays in art authentication was reportedly in the 1890s in Frankfurt, Germany, and since then the method has only become more widely accepted. Broadly, there are several types of x-rays used to study art. While stereoradiography operates the same way as medical x-rays, autoradiography uses beta particles, and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) determines the elemental composition of materials. Largely, the methods showcase different layers of paints and structural elements, including the pigments, repaired tears on canvas, losses in the base layer and the underpaintings that might exist.

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Other famous artworks with hidden layers: The layered works of Pablo Picasso

One of the Spanish artist’s most well-known paintings, The Blue Room–depicting a nude woman bending in a bathtub in a room–has below it a portrait of a seated bearded man with a bow tie. The discovery was made with an x-ray in 1997.

In 2018, scientists at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada discovered a hidden image behind Pablo Picasso’s La Misereuse Accroupie (The Crouching Beggar or The Crouching Woman). According to the finding, the 1902 work was painted by Picasso over a landscape painting by an unknown artist. The researchers noted that Picasso was able to imbibe some of the elements of the previous painting into his own, such as the lines of the cliff edges, for instance, becoming the crouching woman’s back.

The hidden Edgar Degas

The use of XRF in French impressionist Edgar Degas’s painting Portrait of a Woman (painted between 1876 and 1880) revealed the portrait of another young woman concealed beneath. The research was conducted in Australia in 2016. It is believed the hidden portrait is of French artist Emma Dobigny, who has appeared in other Degas paintings.

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A sketch under Rembrandt’s masterpiece Night Watch

In 2021, researchers in the Netherlands discovered preparatory sketches under one of the Baroque artist’s most famous works, The Night Watch (1642). Commissioned around 1639 by Captain Banninck Cocq and members of his Kloveniers (civic militia guards), the colossal work, measuring 12 x 14 feet was completed in 1642. Researchers using macro-XRF imaging discovered that Rembrandt used beige paint with high chalk content for the layer underneath where he had included several elements he altered later. The finding also offered an insight into the Dutch master’s creative process.

First published on: 16-07-2022 at 13:04 IST
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