Using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, Joris Dik (TU Delft) sheds new light on famous paintings by old masters like Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
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"In the end, even the most famous painting is just paint on a canvas", says art historian and material scientist Joris Dik. Studying the paint can expose forgeries, magically conjure up hidden paintings, and even allow us to look over the shoulders of old masters. But how can we examine works of art without damaging them?
In the past decade, Dik has introduced the art world to X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. ‘XRF’ can ‘dissect’ a painting without damaging it. The analysis technique reveals different chemical elements in the paint, often pigments, with sometimes surprising results. It turns out there is a woman’s face resembling the potato eaters hidden behind Van Gogh’s painting Pasture in Bloom (1887), for example. Van Gogh painted over it because canvasses were expensive.
With XRF, the material of paintings can already provide great insight into the creative process of painters, but Dik would like to go one step further. Painting research can be conducted with much greater precision with synchrotron radiation, but the high-intensity X-ray beam that this device can produce is now only available via large and expensive facilities. Therefore, together with researchers from TU/e, Dik works on the development of a scaled-down mini- synchrotron. This could have great applications in art research as well as in e.g. healthcare and forensic science.
Joris Dik has a dual background in both the arts and sciences and is professor of Materials in Art and Archaeology at Delft University of Technology. He regularly appears on TV, for example as one of the experts in the TV series Het geheim van de meester (‘The secret of the master’).