This week, scientists discovered something totally new about one of Picasso's most famous works: It was covering up another painting. But this wasn't the first unknown work discovered beneath a famous work over the past few years. Thanks to new tech, dozens of lost works are reappearing.
Art conservation has always taken the skills of a scientist—and an expertise in chemistry—but these days, new methods of conservation are transforming the discipline. For example, to find out whether a painting was made before 1945, scientists can test the canvas for two radioactive isotopes that are unique to the atomic bombs released after 1945. Or, for older paintings, they can use Terahertz spectroscopy, or simply infrared imaging, so find out what lies below the top coat.
Below, we took a look at some of the most incredible discoveries of the past few years—but first, here's a bit more about this newly-discovered mystery painting.
Picasso was just 19 in 1901, when he painted The Blue Room, one of his most well-known paintings. If it looks melancholy to you, that's because it is—this is a painting from his Blue Period, inspired by the suicide of a close friend in 1901 and the severe depression that followed. Here's what the painting looks like:
But it turns out that The Blue Room wasn't the work Picasso set out to paint. In fact, it was a second try (or maybe even third, for all we know). Using infrared scanning and multi-spectral imaging technology, scientists in D.C. have been able to piece together a glimpse at what lies beneath this iconic work: A man in a bow-tie, whose identity remains unknown.
Images: AP Photo/The Phillips Collection.
Conservators have speculated that this older work existed for decades, but imaging technology has only gotten good enough over the past few years to reveal exactly what was there. Next up: Figuring out who he is.
A conservator working on this 17th century painting by the Dutch master Hendrick van Anthonissen was going about her business taking off a layer of varnish when she noticed something odd: The faint outline of a person standing on the horizon of the ocean. Careful work under a microscope revealed that this figure had been standing on something—a beached whale that had been painted out of the picture.
But why? "It's possible that the whale was removed because the presence of a dead animal was considered offensive – or perhaps without the whale the picture was more marketable," she explains.
Van Gogh, like plenty of other penniless artists, reused canvases—which means that he probably painted over plenty of failed works in his time. This one was discovered using high-intensity X-rays from a particle accelerator, which allowed scientists to detect what types of paint were layered at an atomic level.
Restorers were working on the Sforza Castle when they discovered a lost Da Vinci mural under almost 20 layers of whitewash. Below all that paint was a massive mural depicting trees that grew from the walls up onto the ceiling, where they formed a pergola of branches. Now, the painting is being carefully restored to its former glory—you can follow the progress here.
Giampietro Campana was a painter and collector of Roman art in the 19th century—not all that long ago, by most standards. But scientists recently discovered that beneath one of Campana's own frescos, which hangs in the Louvre, was lurking an artwork thousands of years older.
Using Terahertz spectroscopy—basically, the same type of radiation they use to take your full body scan at the airport—scientists realized that there was a Roman fresco lurking beneath Campana's recent work. "We could not believe our eyes as the image materialized on the screen," said main investigator J. Bianca Jackson. "Underneath the top painting of the folds of a man's tunic, we saw an eye, a nose and then a mouth appear. We were seeing what likely was part of an ancient Roman fresco, thousands of years old."
Lead image: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci.