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Visualizing a missing N.C. Wyeth painting using x-ray fluorescence is the topic of a keynote address by Dr. Jennifer L. Mass at the August 19th, 2009 American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting symposium, "Practical Applications of Surface Chemistry: Art and Sensing Applications."   In this presentation, Mass, from the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware, recounts work enabled by a collaboration with scientists at CHESS, the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, to develop a confocal x-ray fluorescence microscope to examine the chemistry – and ultimately see the color palette – of layers of paint buried beneath a later portrait.

Coverage of the development of the technique is here:

Science writer Anne Ju of the Cornell Chronicle wrote the following summary (PDF): coverage (PDF):  

[The researcher-provided materials for the conference press release follow.]

X-radiography of an N. C. Wyeth family portrait (c. 1922-1924) has revealed the presence of a second painting buried underneath the surface. This painting has been identified as a 1919 work by Wyeth, previously thought to have been lost. No color representations of the work survive, and pigment characterization of the buried work was desired to determine if it was in painted in full color, and if so to generate a color reproduction. While limited samples could be removed for cross-section examination, confocal x-ray fluorescence microscopy (CXRF) was chosen as the method for non-destructively probing the composition of the buried paint layers. Sections of the painting were scanned using conventional XRF mapping in conjunction with CXRF depth scans to obtain compositional maps of the buried painting. These maps are being used to reproduce the buried image.

N. C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth (1882-1945) is an iconic American artist best known for his famous illustrations for the works of Robert Lewis Stevenson and James Fennimore Cooper, and for popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s and McClure’s. He is considered to be the greatest American illustrator of the 20th century. However, several of his most valued and beloved illustrations have been lost from view because they were painted over, either by N.C. Wyeth himself or by his son, groundbreaking 20th century American artist Andrew Wyeth.  N.C. Wyeth would reuse his illustration canvases by turning them upside down and painting over them, and instructed his son to reuse them in a similar manner so that he would be “inspired by the abstract shapes from the former composition”.  This is in contrast to artists such as Van Gogh and Matisse who are thought to have re-used canvases or buried paintings under paintings in order to save funds on expensive materials.  

One of N.C. Wyeth’s lost illustrations has been identified and is being reproduced through x-ray analytical methods including confocal x-ray fluorescence, x-ray fluorescence intensity mapping, and conventional microanalytical methods including scanning electron microscopy x-ray microanalysis. The illustration, a scene of a dramatic struggle from a 1919 Everybody’s Magazine article titled “The Mildest Mannered Man”, had been painted over by N.C. Wyeth as he formulated a study for a Wyeth family mural Family Portrait (1922-1924) at the Brandywine River Museum. To nondestructively determine the pigment compositions of the underlying illustration so that it could be reproduced without damaging the overlying painting, the painting was studied using confocal x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (CXRF).  This nondestructive technique for imaging buried paintings was developed at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), a national x-ray facility at Cornell University supported by the National Science Foundation. CXRF focuses incident and fluorescent x-rays so that the elements in the underlying paint layers can be identified without taking a sample from the painting.  This information has been interpreted along with art historical research in order to reconstruct the newly found illustration in color. To date there have been no published studies on N.C. Wyeth’s painting materials and methods, and so this research will not only elucidate a buried painting but also contribute to the extant N.C. Wyeth art historical scholarship and attribution decisions.

The application of confocal XRF and XRF intensity mapping is a novel approach to the imaging of buried paintings, and the most efficient and effective approach to date. While J. Dik et al. recently applied XRF intensity mapping to a Van Gogh, this work contains ambiguities that can only be resolved by combining this technique with confocal XRF. The Cornell University synchrotron source is currently the only facility for the joint confocal xrf and xrf intensity mapping of buried paintings.


The confocal x-ray fluorescence microscope work presented here was done the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences under NSF award DMR-0225180. 


submitted by: E. Fontes