Art conservators have many of the same hi-tech sensing and imaging technologies available to them that medical and military personnel do — x-ray diffraction and fluorescence, infrared spectroscopy, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, optical scanning, ultrasound, x-ray tomography, etc. Initially employed in the service of detecting cracks and damage and material properties useful in conserving works of art, these technologies are increasingly being used to examine paintings and sculpture for clues to artists’ methods and processes of creation. And what these technologies reveal is now finding its way into galleries.
In 2006, the Getty Museum used x-ray and infrared images to investigate the collaboration between Rubens and Brueghel. In 2007, the National Gallery applied these technologies to Venetian paintings by Giorgione, Bellini, and Titian. Earlier this year, the Art Institute of Chicago mounted a Winslow Homer watercolor show in which the paintings had been examined for signs of the preparatory work beneath the seemingly facile surfaces.
Currently (through March 31, 2009), the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, is featuring a small but intriguing exhibition about the scientific investigation of art entitled What Lies Beneath: Revealing Painters’ Secrets in which works by major artists such as Monet, Renoir, Rousseau, and Van Gogh have been placed under the metaphorical microscope. What x-rays and infrared reflectography reveal is not so much subtle adjustments of composition as the painting of new paintings over old — do-overs by the masters.
An 1887 self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, for instance, was discovered to have a painting of a woman at spinning wheel upside down and beneath it. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1873 “Monet Painting In His Garden at Argenteuil” turned out to have a portrait of woman in a straw hat, presumed to be Monet’s wife Camille, sideways beneath it.
Claude Monet’s own 1870 landscape “The Beach at Trouville” has a visibly odd triangular shape at the top left, which under x-ray and infrared examination turned out to be the sails of a sailboat, not one edited out of the beach scene but simply painted over. Theodore Rousseau’s 1864 Barbizon School landscape, “Sunset on the Hills of Jean-de-Paris,” is a somewhat less interesting painting than those already cited but what the hi-tech instruments revealed was actually more interesting in that they revealed how Rousseau had edited out large trees in the foreground to open up the painting.
Personally, I tend to find scientific sleuthing to be somewhat antithetical to the aesthetic enterprise of art. Artists paint over old paintings all the time. I’m not sure what the ultimate value of revealing their failures might be, other than to make the point that even the great ones made mistakes. I am, therefore, very ambivalent about the use currently being made of x-rays, infrared reflectography and neutron beams to search for a mural that Leonardo Da Vinci painted in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Legend has it that Da Vinci was unhappy with his “Battle of Angiers” mural and that a Medici duke had it painted over. Finding a long lost mural makes for a great detective story, but if Da Vinci didn’t want it seen, I’d defer to his judgment.
That said, “What Lies Beneath” represents an excellent opportunity for New England art lovers to see what’s up (or under) with the application of scientific technology to one-of-a-kind works of art.
Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford, CT, 860-278-2670.