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September 7, 2009

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X-ray machine reveals lost N.C. Wyeth painting

JUST beneath the surface of a painting of one of America's best known artistic families lies a dark tale that had been hidden for decades.

Thanks to a colossal X-ray machine, a magazine illustration by N.C. Wyeth has been reproduced in color more than 80 years after the artist covered it with another work.

"It's really an exciting development in the study of objects of art," said Jennifer Mass, a scientist and art conservator at the Winterthur museum in Delaware.

The soft-toned painting of Wyeth's family doesn't include much detail; it was meant only as a study for a living room mural the artist had planned to paint in their suburban Pennsylvania home.

Under the serene "Study for Wyeth Family mural," however, lies an menacing composition.

The 1919 illustration was done for a periodical called "Everybody's Magazine." In a short story, a love triangle ends in the death of the villain, whom Wyeth depicts with clenched fists and an evil scowl as he charges his rival.

Wyeth turned the canvas upside down and painted his mural study around 1927. Included is his young son Andrew, who went on to become one of the most prominent American artists of the 20th century before his death earlier this year.

"Publishers sometimes returned the canvases after the magazine was published, so you can imagine they started to stack up after a while," said Christine Podmaniczky, associate curator for the N.C. Wyeth collections at the Brandywine Museum in Pennsylvania. "It wasn't uncommon for him to reuse canvases."

A partial label on the back of the canvas provided enough information to offer a clue of the image behind, Podmaniczky said. A basic X-ray in 1997 confirmed, albeit in fuzzy black and white, the hunch that it was the long-lost magazine illustration.

Enter the synchrotron - Cornell University's high-intensity X-ray. Housed in a circular underground tunnel that's a half mile in circumference, the device creates X-rays with up to a million times the intensity of what dentists use.

When the thin beam hits part of a painting, it creates a phenomenon called fluorescence. Elements both have unique fluorescence fingerprints and correspond to certain paint colors: white contains zinc or titanium, green contains cadmium, blue contains cobalt, and so on.

In essence, the X-ray peers under the top paint layer and identifies the chemical composition underneath. From there, experts can begin to map out the colors of the painting.


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