New tech to unravel secret painting in Rembrandt masterpiece

Rembrandt masterpiece

Scientists have inched closer to revealing a hidden portrait behind a 380-year-old Rembrandt painting with the help of a sophisticated X-ray technology.

The masterpiece, "Old Man in Military Costume" by Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, is kept at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Scientists had noticed the painting bears faint traces of another portrait beneath its surface. Researchers had previously probed the painting with infrared, neutron and conventional X-ray methods, but could not see the behind the top coat, largely because Rembrandt used the same paint (with the same chemical composition) for the underpainting and the final version.

New studies with more sophisticated X-ray techniques that can parse through the painting's layers give art historians hope that they may finally get to see who is depicted in the secret image, LiveScience reported.

"Our experiments demonstrate a possibility of how to reveal much of the hidden picture," Matthias Alfeld from the University of Antwerp said.

"Compared to other techniques, the X-ray investigation we tested is currently the best method to look underneath the original painting," Alfeld said.

Alfeld and an international team used macro X-ray fluorescence analysis to examine a mock-up of Rembrandt's original, created by museum intern Andrea Sartorius, who used paints with the same chemical composition as those used by the Dutch master.

Sartorius painted one portrait on the canvas and then an imitation of "Old Man in Military Costume" on top.

When bombarded with these high-energy X-rays, light is absorbed and emitted from different pigments in different ways.

The scientists targeted four elements of the paint to fluoresce, including calcium, iron, mercury and lead, and got much better impressions of the hidden painting in the mock-up than they were able to before.

"The successful completion of these preliminary investigations on the mock-up painting was an important first step," Karen Trentelman, of the Getty Conservation Institute, said.

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