A Hidden Figure in a Famous Rembrandt Has Been Uncovered Using X-Rays

By Maddie Stone on at

Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume is a 380-year-old masterpiece with a secret. Beneath the famous figure in the feathered cap hides a much younger man, one that researchers are uncovering in coluor using advanced x-ray technology.

Scientists first caught whiff of the hidden figure when scanning the painting with x-rays in 1968. But at the time, the most sophisticated imaging technologies couldn’t see past the painting’s upper coats, and we only had the sketchiest idea of what that mystery person looked like. Over the past few years, a team of researchers at the Getty Conservation Institute has revisited the iconic Rembrandt, which lives at the Getty Museum, using a newer tool known as macro-x-ray fluorescence (macro-XRF). With macro-XRF, scientists can scan a painting’s chemical composition at higher resolutions than ever before, matching specific elements to paint colours. Lead, for instance, indicates the presence of white, copper is associated with blues and greens, and mercury means red.

A Hidden Figure in a Famous Rembrandt Has Been Uncovered Using X-Rays

X-ray scans of An Old Man in Military Costume. Image on the right is inverted to highlight the hidden figure

Best of all, the entire analysis can be done on site without moving (and potentially damaging) a fragile piece of work.

A Hidden Figure in a Famous Rembrandt Has Been Uncovered Using X-Rays

The image up top, published today in Applied Physics A, is the best reconstruction to date of the young man who lurks in the background of Rembrandt’s famous painting. He’s got brownish hair, a collar and an olive cloak, and he’s orientated 180 degrees from the old man in military attire. According to The Getty Iris, museum curator Anne Woollet suspects this figure is an earlier character study by Rembrandt, a painter who was known to frequently reuse his canvases and wood panels.

As scientists continue to study the work, they hope to reconstruct the mystery figure’s clothing in more detail and explore how the colours in the final painting have changed over time. Me, I’m just waiting for x-ray goggles to become a thing so I can buy a pair and take a trip to my local museum. There could be an entire world of hidden art to explore! [The Getty Iris]

Top: Getty’s “tentative color reproduction” of the hidden portrait, via J. Paul Getty Trust. Middle image via The Getty Iris. Bottom image via The Getty Museum.