Advanced X-ray Detector Brings Purported Rembrandt to Light

December 6, 2011

Researchers at the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York) used an advanced x-ray detector developed at NSLS to find compelling evidence that an unknown Rembrandt painting, titled ?Old Man with a Beard,? was an authentic work done by the Dutch master.

Researchers at the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York) used an advanced x-ray detector developed at NSLS to find compelling evidence that an unknown Rembrandt painting, titled “Old Man with a Beard,” was an authentic work done by the Dutch master.

In an article published on Brookhaven’s website, D. Peter Siddons, a physicist with Brookhaven’s Photon Sciences Directorate, said he felt that after doing the experiments at NSLS that the painting he held in his hands was a genuine Rembrandt. “We had identified hidden paint layers, which the art historians considered critical to determining attribution,” Siddons said.

Siddons explained that art historian Ernst van de Wetering and his colleagues — materials scientist Joris Dik of the University of Delft (Delft, Netherlands), art restorer Martin Bijl, and chemist Koen Janssens of the University of Antwerp (Edegem, Belgium) — had all been working closely together to answer questions about the painting’s attribution and to probe beneath the surface for what they believed was a second image. The Europeans were eager to see what more they could learn using a specialized detector at the New York facility.

The detector, named Maia, produced high-definition maps of the spatial distribution of different chemical elements in the painting, at speeds up to 100 times faster than previously achievable. Those results gave scientific support to the declaration of authentication just announced by Van de Wetering at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. Van de Wetering is chair of the Rembrandt Research Project and considered a preeminent authority on Rembrandt.

Initial work was done at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (Grenoble, France), where heavy elements such as lead and mercury could be visualized. Then Dik, in collaboration with the Rembrandt Research Project and the painting’s owner, a private collector, discovered some puzzling information: Studies with a portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanner revealed high concentrations of copper, not evident on the painting’s surface.>/p>

To investigate this anomaly further, the group teamed up with researchers from Cornell University, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), and NSLS to use XRF through the Maia detector.

The Maia detector, which is based on a massively parallel detector array composed of 384 individual detectors, an “on-the-fly” scanning system, and advanced analysis software, imaged the entire painting in about eight hours, a job that would normally take about 30 days.

The copper mapping by Maia revealed contour lines of a beardless, seemingly younger male figure wearing a collar and beret, characteristic of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits. It appears that Rembrandt started a self-portrait, left the painting unfinished, and later painted over the earlier work.

The copper mapping by Maia revealed contour lines of a beardless, seemingly younger male figure wearing a collar and beret, characteristic of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits. It appears that Rembrandt started a self-portrait, left the painting unfinished, and later painted over the earlier work.

A third image, verified by infrared photography, revealed possibly a sketch made from carbon of a figure wearing a turban with a feather. “One thing was clear after the images Maia produced: This was no student copy,” said Dik. “You can’t always judge a painting by its surface!”

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