Blue Boy Lost His Dog, Sarah Siddons Her Cherub, X-Rays Show : Art: Museums use technology to check paintings’ history, uncovering details or whole figures that artists intended to conceal.


It might authenticate a Rembrandt or expose an impostor. It proved Blue Boy once had a dog. It showed theatrical grand dame Sarah Siddons was painted lounging on a burnished wood throne with a chubby, winged cherub fluttering at its base.

The X-ray machine is not just for the doctor or the dentist.

Across the United States, museums have invested thousands in the decades-old technology to take stripped-down portraits of paintings. In doing so, they hope to uncover details or whole figures artists meant to permanently conceal.

“It’s behind the scenes, and everybody loves to go behind the scenes,” said Shelley Bennett, the curator of British and Continental art at the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. “You can see how these artists started out and the subtle changes they made that make the great artists.”


Most of the country’s major museums routinely X-ray their paintings to enhance the institutions’ understanding of their collections. Many have invested in the machines and the conservators to interpret the X-rays.

Sometimes, curators say, the effort will yield the kind of information valuable only to art experts and historians--a hidden brush stroke here, a disguised flourish there.

But there are the exceptions. The Huntington is a museum just big enough to display about 100 artworks at a time. Too small to own its own X-ray machine, the museum has spent about $20,000 to have 26 paintings X-rayed, and has made some exciting discoveries.

Take “The Blue Boy,” for example, Thomas Gainsborough’s seminal, late 18th-Century portrait of a genteel young man dolled up in shiny blue satin and delicate lace.

Bennett said Gainsborough was successful in his attempt to make the son of a close friend--a wealthy hardware merchant--look like an aristocrat.

But in the first version of the portrait, Gainsborough gave the boy a shaggy white dog--a “pooch,” as Bennett calls it--prancing at his feet.

“It brings that aristocratic illusion to earth with a thud,” said Bennett. That’s why she thinks the artist eventually painted grasses and rocks atop the fluffy figure.

Blue Boy was X-rayed once before in 1939. That film didn’t show the dog, but it did reveal that Gainsborough had used the canvas to start a portrait of an older man.

At the top of the canvas, there’s a head and a cravat of the older man. For unknown reasons, the painter abandoned the portrait, cut the canvas down and reused it in about 1770 to paint Blue Boy.

Bennett’s staff learned that Sir Joshua Reynolds’ “Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse” once featured a winged baby with a scroll lolling at the feet of the renowned English actress.

The curator says some of Reynolds’ peers considered this portrait, finished around 1784, to be one of the greatest ever painted. But would they have thought the same thing, Bennett wondered, with a cherub soaring across the bottom, where there is now a black strip, or if the fierce-faced Tragedy, one of the two dramatic figures flanking Siddons, had remained the weepy Pity, as Reynolds originally proposed?

“As he’s working along, you can see that his concept starts to crystallize,” Bennett said. “What we have now is a more intellectually coherent statement.”

What an Ohio State University art historian had after she did an X-ray study was the startling discovery that two paintings by a famous Flemish artist once were a single work.

Ann Morgenstern revealed a decade ago that a greedy art dealer--in a bid to make more money--probably sawed apart “The Ship of Fools,” considered one of Hieronymus Bosch’s best works, and “Intemperance.” The former is now on display at the Louvre in Paris, and the latter is housed at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn.

Using X-rays, she noticed that Bosch’s original drawings for “Ship of Fools” and “Intemperance” included various figures split between the two scenes.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Bosch paintings, X-rays can solve a mystery. But in many other instances, they only inflame an already heated debate.

Rembrandt, often considered the greatest painter of Holland’s 17th-Century golden age, today incites some of the most heated arguments in the modern art world. The question of what works were or were not painted by the master, rather than one of his apprentices or imitators, infuriates scholars in debates. X-rays can help to resolve or exacerbate those differences.

New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is now running the exhibit “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt,” in which the exhibit’s two curators each wrote his own catalogue, describing for the public his reason for believing a painting did or did not come from the brush of Rembrandt.

Curator Hubert Von Sonnenburg, for instance, argues that X-rays of the 1633 panel painting, “Portrait of a Woman,” reveal neither the revisions nor the sure hand that usually distinguishes the master.

But Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings, points out that Rembrandt was flooded with portrait commissions in the early 1630s, and so the quality of those he produced then may have varied widely. He describes the work as possibly attributable to Rembrandt.

X-rays cannot, then, solve every--or even most--artistic mysteries. But they can add to historians’ knowledge and often lend a more comprehensive understanding of a particular work of artist.

And that, museum curators hope, make the viewing of art all the more interesting.

“The art always comes first,” said Joe Fronek, a senior paintings conservator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The technical data is just a means at getting to the enjoyment of the painting.”