What’s beneath the painting?

A peek under the paint

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With modern techniques, we can now see everything beneath the thick layers of paint on top. What we find is sometimes at least as interesting as the painting we see as a museum visitor. An X-ray scan often reveals the process used by Rembrandt in his later years.


It used to be the connoisseur who had to determine who had painted a painting and how the artist had gone about his work. Today, we are assisted in other ways including modern technology. Not only can we determine the age of a work by counting tree rings, but we can also look beneath the surface of the paint to see how Rembrandt worked and how he decided on his final composition. Infrared and X-ray techniques are particularly effective in obtaining a better image. These methods provided interesting discoveries, especially when it came to Rembrandt’s later work.

A genuine Rembrandt or a forgery
By the beginning of the twentieth century there was so much work attributed to Rembrandt that it was assumed that it also included forgeries created in more recent years. Such, however, was not the case. In many instances, paintings that looked as if they had been made by Rembrandt were actually made by his pupils working in the artist’s studio. Their paintings, even some ‘self-portraits’ of their master, had long been attributed to Rembrandt. Rembrandt had his pupils make copies as well as ‘satellites’: paintings made in the spirit of an original Rembrandt. This kind of studio practice was not unusual at the time, but Rembrandt took it to another level.

X-ray scans show that beneath the existing ‘Portrait of Frederick Rihel on Horseback’ (ca. 1663) there was once a life-size image of a man positioned horizontally on the canvas. Only later did Rembrandt portray him on horseback. 

There are now more than a thousand paintings associated in one way or another with Rembrandt’s name

Rembrandt’s painting factory

Rembrandt did not settle for working with beginning apprentices but usually took on accomplished painters who could immediately hold their own in the production process. Sometimes, their work was so good that it could easily pass for a genuine Rembrandt. One of these excellent painters was Govaert Flinck. A total of 55 pupils of Rembrandt have been identified, but there were probably many more. And they really churned out the work. There are now at least a thousand paintings associated in one way or another with Rembrandt’s name. 

Putting the science of physics to use
A hundred years ago, it was only the connoisseur who could determine whether a painting was a genuine Rembrandt or not. Today, we are assisted by various ultra-modern techniques such as X-ray radiography and infrared reflectography. Infrared and X-ray supplement each other. Unlike infrared, X-ray cannot visualise carbon. This makes infrared a suitable choice for revealing a possible signature. X-ray, however, is better at revealing a painting beneath a painting, assessing the condition of the support, and tracing previous restorations. By applying these technologies, we know that the master had sometimes tinkered quite a bit with the paintings he completed later in his career. The painting of Bathsheba is one such example. X-ray scans reveal that Rembrandt had originally wanted to paint the woman with a raised head and a startled expression on her face. Ultimately, he painted a woman in which we see only her inner turmoil. 
In ‘The Syndics’, the scans show us how Rembrandt struggled with the composition. In the final version, he arrived at an exciting arrangement that still fascinates the eye.
Rembrandt’s pursuit of the right composition for ‘The Syndics’

This pursuit of the right composition for The Syndics (1662) is quite obvious. The figure that posed the biggest problem for Rembrandt was the servant, Frans Hendricksz Bel. He was placed in at least three different positions in the painting before receiving his current position behind the two syndics in the middle of the composition. By applying modern technology, it is clear that the figure of Bel had already been painted over in two of his initial locations in the painting – at the far right and between the two syndics on the right. Ultimately, he was given a new location higher on the painting.

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