Explained: How X-Rays Reveal Van Gogh, Picasso’s Paintings Hidden Beneath Existing Works


At a time when paintings by Western masters fetch astronomical prices, X-ray studies have unveiled two works under the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Amedeo Modigliani this week.

While the Dutch master Van Gogh Peasant head in the collection of the 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 Naked in a hat.

Although such finds 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 beneath the works of many other masters. , including Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Rembrandt.

How Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Was Discovered

With few of his works sold during his lifetime, Van Gogh was known to reuse canvases to save money. Experts discovered the self-portrait at the National Galleries of Scotland which cataloged the canvas Peasant head for an exhibition on French Impressionism at the Royal Scottish Academy. On the back of the 1885 work, the self-portrait remained hidden for more than 100 years under layers of glue and cardboard. Researchers are now analyzing how the two works can be separated without harming either. The work is believed to belong to a series of experimental self-portraits by the Dutch Post-Impressionist, one of the most influential figures in Western art history.

Discoveries on Modigliani’s canvas

An unusual painting, Modigliani’s canvas from 1908 nude in 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, on the other side. In 2010, museum curator Hecht noticed the eyes of a third figure under Abrantès’ collar, and an X-ray was recently taken to study these details when the presence of two other portraits was revealed, one of a man and the other a woman with her hair in a bun.

Forensic investigation of the canvas was underway prior to its trip to an exhibit 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 previously unknown portrait of the artist’s partner Beatrice Hastings beneath one of her masterpieces Portrait of a young girl.

How X-rays are used to study art

Although there are different techniques and technologies that are now designed to study art, the use of x-rays to examine works of art dates back to the first decade of the 20th century. The first documented use of x-rays in authenticating art is said to have taken place in the 1890s in Frankfurt, Germany, and since then the method has only gained wider acceptance. Generally speaking, there are several types of x-rays used to study art. While stereoradiography works similarly to medical X-rays, autoradiography uses beta particles and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) determines the elemental composition of materials. For the most part, the methods present different layers of paints and structural elements, including pigments, repaired tears on the canvas, losses in the base coat, and any undercoats that might exist.

Other Famous Artworks with Hidden Layers: The Layered Works of Pablo Picasso

One of the best-known paintings by the Spanish artist, The blue room–depicting a nude woman leaning in a tub in a bedroom –has below 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 an image hidden behind Pablo Picasso. The Misereuse Crouching (The Crouching Beggar or The Crouching Woman). According to the discovery, the 1902 work was painted by Picasso over a landscape painting by an unknown artist. Scholars have noted that Picasso was able to pick up some elements from earlier painting, such as the lines of the cliff edges, for example, becoming the back of the crouching woman.

The hidden Edgar Degas

The Use of XRF in the Painting of French Impressionist Edgar Degas Portrait of a woman (painted between 1876 and 1880) revealed the portrait of another young woman concealed below. The research was conducted in Australia in 2016. The hidden portrait is believed to be of French artist Emma Dobigny, who has appeared in other Degas paintings.

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 found that Rembrandt used beige paint with a high chalk content for the layer below where he had included several elements which he later modified. The discovery also offered insight into the Dutch master’s creative process.


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