What Lies Beneath: Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasure

In a study published today in the journal Applied Physics A, scientists have revealed some fascinating discoveries concerning a work by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt von Riijn (1606-1669) – revealing a painting which has not seen the light of day for nearly 400 years.

Art researchers were long aware that underneath The Getty’s portrait, “An Old Man in Military Costume”, painted circa 1630-1631, another portrait existed. The image was first perceived in the 1960’s through x-rays of the panel, but until now only a ghostly idea of the appearance of the original painting was known. Forty years later, using a number of modern imaging techniques, scientists have been able to digitally reconstruct what remains of the original image, which is reproduced below.   

This is not the first time a Rembrandt has been perceived to lie beneath a Rembrandt. If you’ve seen – and if you’ve not, you should – the very interesting Frederick Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery”, about London’s finest art museum, you’ll recall that as a result of cleaning and study of Rembrandt’s equestrian portrait of Frederick Rihel (c. 1663), another painting by Rembrandt was discovered. Not only did the artist re-use the painting itself, but he incorporated a few elements of the first image into the image we see today. Strangely, this was possible even though in doing so, Rembrandt rotated the canvas 90 degrees, from a horizontal to a vertical orientation.

Rembrandt was not the only artist to use old paintings as the base for new ones. In addition to which, museums have been x-raying pictures for decades now, trying to understand their composition and oftentimes determine their authorship, through close examination against known examples by the same artist. Yet because of the possibilities offered by high resolution scanners and the like, more and more researchers are finding themselves having to reconsider what they thought they knew about artists whom they have spent their entire careers studying.

The first point to be made about this, quite naturally, is an easy one: ain’t modern times grand? Technology has advanced to the point where, without invasive techniques, scientists are able to go about their work without irreparably damaging what it is that they are studying. In archaeology for example, until comparatively recently the only way to tell whether anything was inside a tomb was by excavating it. Now, in one of the most intriguing theories in contemporary Egyptology, there is serious discussion about using ground-penetrating radar to determine whether Queen Nefertiti, purported mother of King Tut – i.e., the Pharaoh Tutankhamun  – is buried in a hitherto unknown sealed chamber next to his burial in the Valley of the Kings. This latest theory regarding the final resting place of the most famous of all Egyptian beauties, as it happens, only came to light through the use of modern technological analysis of the tomb, in combination with existing research on architecture of the period.

Now for those who are not particularly interested in art or archaeology, these advancements with regard to perceiving things which we cannot perceive with the naked eye can be of tremendous personal benefit. For example, if you have undergone a sonogram to examine the health of your unborn baby, you know that catching potential problems early can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your health, as well as that of your child. Not to mention, of course, that you will be able to carry around a photographic still from the sonogram to show family and friends.

For those who *are* interested in the arts however, the use of technology to gain greater insight into the means and methods by which great works of art were created, and ancient buildings constructed, is only going to improve over time. One suspects that more museums and galleries are going to seek analysis of their paintings, to try to figure out what is sitting in front of them, covered by a thin veil of paint. Perhaps it will even be possible, one day, to remove the top layer of paint on a molecular level and transfer it to canvas, and for the curator to suddenly find himself the proud caretaker of not one, but two Old Master paintings.

Admittedly, that might be going a bit far, but who knows? Fifty years ago, no one knew that the Getty Rembrandt was painted over another Rembrandt. It took forty years to be able to “see” that earlier Rembrandt properly. We have no idea what the next forty or fifty years will bring.

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