Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Hidden Van Goghs

A team of scientists and art historians have used the latest technologies to find the portrait of a woman hidden beneath one of van Gogh's paintings. Pictured is a digital reconstruction of the face underneath "Patch of Grass,"otherwise known as "Pasture in Bloom," a painting done in 1887 while Vincent was living in Paris (today in the Kröller-Müller Museum). The team first used conventional X-ray to examine the picture and were able to see the rough outlines of the face. But by using a particle accelerator and more advanced X-ray techniques at a laboratory in Germany, they were able to "see" the portrait better and reconstruct its colors. An article summarizing the findings appears in today's Los Angeles Times and more detailed results are being published in a scientific journal. The team's research not only uncovers a "hidden" van Gogh but leads the way to similar uses of X-ray technology in the examination of other artworks.

As for the woman's portrait--the style links it to a series of 'peasant' heads Vincent painted while he was living in Nuenen with his parents in 1885, a series that culminated in "The Potato Eaters." For some reason, Vincent didn't think this study worth keeping and reused the canvas. Because his work output often outpaced his canvas supply, he seems to have reused canvases quite a bit...which leads one to wonder what else lies beneath the canvases hanging in museums. Last year, one of the Van Gogh Museum curators and a restorer from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston discovered a scene of wild vegetation beneath a scene of a ravine done while Vincent was in Saint-Rémy (read about that discovery here). Van Gogh Museum curators also discovered a portrait of a woman beneath the 1887 portrait of café owner Agostina Segatori (the VGM has the x-ray on their website). Vincent didn't think these discarded images important, but they're important for art historians, giving a more complete view of van Gogh's artistic production.


Julianne Douglas said...

My husband is a particle physicist, so it's always interesting to hear about applications of the technology. Thanks for bringing the article to our attention!

Sheramy said...

Hi Julianne--
Your husband might enjoy the scientific article at


Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, Sheramy! I'll pass it along.