Museum wants to X-ray 87 Van Gogh’s

The Kröller-Müller Museum (Otterlo, The Netherlands) wants to X-ray the entire Van Gogh collection of 87 paintings, to search for the underlying work of the artist. Luuk van der Loeff, the painting restorer at the museum, tells Tracing Vincent she hopes sponsors can be found to fund this huge project. Dr. Joris Dik of the Technical University Delft (Netherlands) is very excited: “Money can’t be the issue, we want more!”.

The intended mega-project, which will be the first of its kind, comes forth from a successful X-ray of Van Gogh’s work ‘Patch of Grass‘ (1887). An earlier painting has been discovered under the layers; a portrait of a woman was revealed through new scientific techniques. It was published today in the Analytical Chemistry Paper.

An international research team from the Technical University Delft (Netherlands) and the University of Antwerp (Belgium) has used advanced X-ray analysis for the discovery. The painting was taken out of the museum for just one week and is now back on display at the museum.

This is not the first time the painting was a research subject. During the nineties, röntgen pictures have been taken of all the Van Gogh paintings in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Scientists then already discovered the hidden layers in this painting. Only a vague silhouette of the portrait could be seen at that time.

Joris Dik of the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering at the Delft University and member of the research team, explains the disadvantages of these techniques:

“These ‘old’ techniques create a look ‘through’ the painting. The individual layers of paint were visible as layers, but not separated. This made an accurate interpretation very difficult. Furthermore, when the paint doesn’t contain any heavy metals, it’s invisible on the scans.”

Several companies and institutes sponsored the project. Joris Dik hopes that the publication in the Analytical Chemistry Paper encourages other museums and sponsors to offer paintings for this kind of research.

The cooperation between a Museum and two universities was an obvious choice for Dr. Joris Dik:

“We simply brought two worlds together: the art world and the science-physics world. The cooperation between these worlds resulted in such great results.”

Revealing the painting

The recently developed techniques enabled the researchers to take a closer look at the hidden Van Gogh painting. These new techniques, based on synchrotron radiation that induced X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, do not cause any damage to the paintings.

The team decided to use this particular painting in their research because they knew what to look for. “The silhouette that had been discovered in the nineties was very helpful,” explained Joris Dik to Tracing Vincent. The researcher tells us about the revealing:

“(The painting) was scanned at the synchrotron radiation source DORIS at Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY in Hamburg using an intense but very small X-ray bundle. Over the course of two days, the area covering the image of a woman’s head was scanned, measuring 17.5 x 17.5 cm.”

Luuk van der Loeff, says that the Kröller-Müller Museum is very excited about this new technique:

“It’s a great technique that doesn’t cause any harm to the painting.”

This newly developed technique makes it possible for art critics to understand the development of Vincent’s painting skills.

It’s commonly known that Vincent van Gogh painted new paintings over other paintings. Vincent experimented a lot with different techniques and colors on canvas to develop his painting skills. He didn’t have the money to buy new canvas all the time. This made him paint on old sheets, in letters, or on pieces of wallpaper like Gauguin, of whom a painting was discovered in 1924 behind some layers of wallpaper in a dining room in Brittany.