New mobile scanner reveals details of painting underneath Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume

News - 01 September 2015

Since the late 1960s, art historians have known that another painting lies underneath Rembrandt’s famous An Old Man in Military Costume (painted about 1630-1631, now at The Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Until now, seeing that hidden image in detail has been frustratingly elusive. A recent study conducted in collaboration by experts from Los Angeles, Antwerp, and Delft has provided the most detailed representation of the underlying painting -a young man wrapped in a cloak- to date. The results of this study were published September 1st  in the journal Applied Physics A.

Technological advances

“Our ability to image the underlying painting has greatly benefitted from recent technological advances,” says Karen Trentelman, senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute. “Researchers are always limited by the tools available to them, and over the years the study of this painting – and the underlying image – has progressively advanced with the introduction of each new tool.  With this latest study, our scans reveal the distribution of specific chemical elements, from which we can infer the pigments used in the first composition, providing us with the most detailed image of the underlying painting to date.”

Complementary imaging techniques

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) is known to have re-used supports (i.e., wood panels, such as those used for An Old Man in Military Costume, but also canvases and copper plates), particularly during the early years of his career. The figure beneath An Old Man in Military Costume was first revealed in 1968 when the painting was X-radiographed as part of the Rembrandt Research Project’s study of Rembrandt’s work. Subsequently, other imaging techniques, including neutron activation autoradiography (NAAR), provided better, but still indistinct, views of the underlying figure. Now, researchers have combined the results of two complementary, element-specific imaging techniques to study the picture - neutron activation autoradiography (NAAR) and the more recently developed macro-X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) scanning.

Mobile scanner

The development of a mobile scanner that could be brought to museums was crucial to this research. Prior it its development, such work could only be accomplished at a small number of national research facilities, requiring the transportation of a rare masterpiece to a faraway lab.  
“MA-XRF is an X-ray technique that we designed to analyze and visualize hidden paint layers for the museum field,” says Joris Dik (TU Delft). “Its instrumental development has been a joint, five-year effort of industry, museums and academia, co-funded by NWO. The instrument was designed specifically to accommodate this Rembrandt painting, and so our first U.S. visit was to the Getty - we are excited to see it perform so well.”

The new technology was brought to the Getty Center in Los Angeles and scans were conducted on the painting over a period of about 30 hours.  The instrument, now commercially available, is primarily designed for the study of paintings, but has found application in many other fields, including archaeology and law enforcement.

Color analysis

The general shape of the face of the figure underlying An Old Man in Military Costume was revealed by X-radiography: NAAR imaging provided more details about the shape of the face and the cloak worn by the figure along with indications of the chemical composition of some of the pigments Rembrandt used.  MA-XRF scanning significantly added to the understanding of the hidden painting by providing detailed images of the distribution of individual chemical elements, from which the specific pigment(s) - and colors - Rembrandt used to paint the first figure could be inferred.  For example, the underlying figure’s face is rich in the element mercury, indicative of the presence of the red pigment vermilion, one of the components used to create flesh tones.  The MA-XRF map of mercury provided a nearly complete, detailed image of the face of the underlying figure; similarly, the map of copper, typically associated with blue or green pigments, provided an image of the cloak.    

Rembrandt’s facial features?

Together, the information from the NAAR and MA-XRF scans was used to create a tentative digital color reconstruction of the hidden image: a young man, seen in three-quarter view wearing a voluminous cloak around his shoulders. The full significance of the hidden painting within Rembrandt’s oeuvre will continue to be the subject of ongoing research. “There is a strong likelihood that, like An Old Man in Military Costume, this underlying image of the young man is another character study (tronie) in which Rembrandt used his own features,” says Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty Museum.

More information

‘Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume: the underlying image re-examined’, Karen Trentelman (Getty Conservation Institute), Koen Janssens (Universiteit Antwerpen), Geert van der Snickt (Universiteit Antwerpen), Yvonne Szafran (J. Paul Getty Museum), Anne T. Woollett (J. Paul Getty Museum), Joris Dik (TU Delft), Appl. Phys. A, published online 01/09/2015, DOI 10.1007/s00339-015-9426-3

Contact TU Delft: prof.dr. Joris Dik, +31 15 27 89571, J.Dik@tudelft.nl   
Science Information Officer TU Delft: Roy Meijer,, 015 27 81751, 06-14015008

Check out the original press release of The Getty Museum for extra material: