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Imaging Reveals Hidden Art

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2009 – Scientists have reported the use of a new x-ray imaging technique to reveal, for the first time in a century, unprecedented details of a painting hidden beneath another painting by famed American illustrator N.C. Wyeth. The nondestructive look-beneath-the-surface method could reveal hidden images in hundreds of Old Master paintings and other prized works of art, the researchers reported to the American Chemical Society.

Jennifer Mass, senior scientist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Delaware, and her colleagues note in a new study that many great artists reused canvases or covered paintings with other paintings. They did this to save money on materials or to let the colors and shapes of a prior composition influence the next one, she said. (See Painted-over Portrait Probed)

Art historians believe that several of Wyeth’s most valued illustrations have been lost from view in that way. Some regard Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945) as the greatest American illustrator of the 20th century.
Researchers are using a new x-ray technique to identify the original details and colors of N.C. Wyeth's “fist fight” image (bottom) hidden underneath his “Family Portrait” painting (top). Images courtesy of Brandywine River Museum.

One of these so-called lost illustrations depicts a dramatic fistfight and was published in a 1919 Everybody’s Magazine article titled “The Mildest Mannered Man.” Using simple x-ray techniques, other scientists previously showed that Wyeth had covered the fight scene with another painting, “Family Portrait.” But until now, the fine detail and colors in the fight scene have been lost from view. 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 (CHESS) 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. 

Besides revealing the original image, the method is providing new information on Wyeth’s materials and methods. The same technique may ultimately reveal hidden images in paintings by other famed artists, the researchers say.

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Aug 2009
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
American Chemical Societychemicalsconfocal X-ray fluorescence microscopeCornell High Energy Synchrotron Sourcefluorescent x-ray signalsimagingJennifer Mass PhDMicroscopyN.C. WyethNews & FeaturesphotonicsResearch & Technologyx-ray imaging

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