High-tech study reveals work beneath Van Gogh landscape

Times Staff Writer

Using a thin beam of synchrotron X-rays generated by a particle accelerator, European scientists have reconstructed a portrait of a peasant woman painted by Vincent van Gogh that had been concealed beneath another painting for 121 years.

The image, unveiled in a scientific journal published today, bears a striking resemblance to a series of somber portraits the artist produced in the Dutch town of Nuenen, where he composed “The Potato Eaters,” completed in 1885 and regarded as his first major work.

Conventional X-rays had revealed the rough outlines of the portrait, which Van Gogh covered 2 1/2 years later with a vibrant landscape of a flowering meadow after he moved to Paris and was influenced by Impressionism. But those X-rays weren’t good at distinguishing between the many layers of paint on the single canvas, and pigments made from heavy metals obscured colors derived from other elements.


“We get a very partial, fragmentary, color-blind view,” said Joris Dik, a materials scientist and art historian at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands.

So Dik and his colleagues took the painting, “Patch of Grass,” which was completed in 1887, to a particle accelerator in Hamburg, Germany. The intense X-ray beam excited the atoms on the canvas, causing them to emit X-rays of their own that were captured by a florescence detector. It took two days to scan the roughly 7-by-7-inch portion of the meadow that masked the portrait.

Since each element in the painting had its own X-ray signature, the scientists were able to identify the distribution of metals in the various layers of paint and construct a three-dimensional model of the work. Then the team peeled off the layers one by one.

The top layer consisted of paints made with zinc, barium, sulfur and other elements. Behind that they found a uniform distribution of lead, which was used as a primer to hide the portrait and prepare the canvas for a new painting. Once that was removed, they combined the distributions of two more elements -- mercury and antimony -- to produce the outlines of the hidden portrait.

Then, with the help of computer software, the team embarked on an elaborate version of painting by numbers.

“We colorized those two distributions according to the color that the pigment would have had,” Dik said.


Chemical analysis revealed that the mercury was an ingredient of vermilion, the red pigment used to color the woman’s lips, cheeks and forehead. Antimony was a component of Naples yellow, which was mixed with zinc white paint to highlight certain areas of the woman’s face, according to the report in the August issue of Analytical Chemistry.

Van Gogh often recycled his canvases. Art experts estimate that one-third of his early paintings hide others, which may be ripe for new analysis.