From Picasso to Van Gogh: The lost artworks found thanks to technology

From Picasso to Van Gogh: The lost artworks found thanks to technology

07/14/2022

From man in a bow tie behind Picasso masterpiece to an unfinished painting of Mary Queen of Scots: As Van Gogh self-portrait is discovered on back of famous canvas, the other lost works uncovered by X-ray technology

  • Conservators in 2008 found the face of a woman hidden in Vincent Van Gogh’s 1887 Patch of Grass
  • In 2014, experts discovered the depiction of a man in a bow tie behind Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room
  • Analysis of Dutch master Rembrandt’s famous work An Old Man in Military Costume revealed hidden portrait
  • Conservators also discovered unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots underneath 16th-century painting 

From abandoned works by Picasso that were buried beneath new layers of paint, to a mysterious figure hidden in a Rembrandt painting that could be a long-lost self-portrait. 

They are the hidden, half-finished works that might have been lost forever if not for modern technology.

News today of the discovery of a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh on the back of his Head Of A Peasant Woman painting has set the art world alight. 

But the find, revealed by an X-ray, is not the first work that Van Gogh covered up. 

Conservators in 2008 found the face of woman hidden in his 1887 work Patch of Grass, and in 2012 a painting of two wrestlers was discovered underneath a canvas that was later found to be by him, ‘Still life with meadow flowers and roses’. 

Yet Van Gogh is not the only artist to have had second thoughts about a work, or to have repurposed an existing canvas for a painting totally different to the original. 

In 2014, conservators found a painting of a man in a bow tie hidden beneath one of Pablo Picasso’s first masterpieces, The Blue Room, using advanced infrared imagery. 

Four years later, new x-rays found that a depiction of a landscape in a completely different style lay underneath his 1902 oil painting The Crouching Beggar. 

Even Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, possibly the most famous painting in the world, bears a hidden portrait of another woman beneath it – according to a French scientist who used new technology to make the discovery in 2015.

That same year, analysis of Dutch master Rembrandt’s famous work An Old Man in Military Costume revealed a second ghostly portrait hidden beneath. 

In 2017, conservators discovered what they believed to be an unfinished portrait of the executed Mary, Queen of Scots underneath a 16th-century painting. 

Below, MailOnline delves into the works that have been found in recent years beneath some of the world’s best-known paintings. 


News today of the discovery of a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh on the back of his Head Of A Peasant Woman painting has set the art world alight. But the find, revealed by an X-ray, is not the first work that Van Gogh covered up. Above: The original work and the newly-discovered self-portrait

Face of a woman beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass

In 2008, a new X-ray technique found the face of woman beneath Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass work, which was completed in 1887.

The picture was subjected to what is known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, a technique that allowed experts to map the chemicals on it. 

Previous research had discovered the vague outline of a head beneath the work. 

Over the course of two days, scientists scanned the picture with a pencil-thin beam of very energetic X-rays generated by a synchrotron, a machine that accelerates sub-atomic particles  

In 2008, a new X-ray technique found the face of woman beneath Van Gogh’s Patch of Grass work, which was completed in 1887

The picture (seen above) was subjected to what is known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, a technique that allowed experts to map the chemicals on it

The powerful bombardment caused atoms in the picture’s layers of paint to release ‘fluorescent’ X-rays of their own which could be used to map the chemicals they originated from.

In this way the scientists, led by Dr Joris Dik, from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Professor Koen Janssens from the University of Antwerp in Belgium, were able to reconstruct the hidden portrait in unparalleled detail.

Elements from specific paint pigments allowed a ‘colour photo’ of the concealed work to be produced.

The woman’s head, which was looking slightly to the left, filled a square area measuring 17.5 by 17.5 centimetres.

Half-naked wrestlers found beneath Van Gogh’s ‘Still life with meadow flowers and roses’

In 2012, art historians found what they believed to be a work by Van Gogh after scanning a work that had initially been attributed to an unknown artist. 

The scan of the canvas, ‘Still life with meadow flowers and roses’, uncovered an image of two wrestlers painted underneath. 

In 2012, art historians found what they believed to be a work by Van Gogh after scanning a work that had initially been attributed to an unknown artist. The scan of the canvas, ‘Still life with meadow flowers and roses’, uncovered an image of two wrestlers painted underneath

The painting, on a 100 centimetre by 80 centimetre (40x31in) canvas, had already been X-rayed five years previously but it only revealed an indistinct image of the wrestlers. The 2012 X-ray showed the wrestlers in more detail, along with the brush strokes and pigments used. They all pointed back to Van Gogh

Knowledge of the painter’s period at a Belgian art academy, led researchers to conclude that both the wrestling depiction and the painting on top of it was by Van Gogh.

The painting, on a 100 centimetre by 80 centimetre (40x31in) canvas, had already been X-rayed five years previously but it only revealed an indistinct image of the wrestlers.

The 2012 X-ray showed the wrestlers in more detail, along with the brush strokes and pigments used. They all pointed back to Van Gogh.

Painting of a man in a bow tie found beneath Picasso’s The Blue Room

In 2014, scientists revealed a hidden depiction of a man beneath Picasso’s 1901 masterpiece The Blue Room.

The man, whose identity is unknown, was discovered in a vertical composition beneath the landscape work. 

Conservators had long suspected that there might be something under the surface of The Blue Room. 

It was not until the 1990s that an x-ray revealed a fuzzy image of something underneath it. Improved infrared imagery then revealed the detail of the man in 2008, before a clearer image was developed over the next five years.

The discovery was made by conservators at The Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, Cornell University and Delaware’s Winterthur Museum.  

Landscape scene hidden beneath Picasso’s The Crouching Beggar

In 2018, a team of scientists and curators discovered a landscape in completely different style to that of Spanish master Pablo Picasso that was hidden underneath his 1902 oil painting The Crouching beggar.

The work was analysed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, where conservators noticed it had unusual textures.

In 2018, a team of scientists and curators discovered a landscape in completely different style to that of Spanish master Pablo Picasso that was hidden underneath his 1902 oil painting The Crouching beggar

The work was analysed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Canada, where conservators noticed it had unusual textures

They used technology known as reflectance imaging spectroscopy to see the underlying images beneath every paint layer and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging to map out the composition of the pigments.

The experts discovered a horizontal landscape by a different and unknown painter.

Picasso tipped the artist’s canvas 90 degrees to the right and used some of the landscape forms to shape the woman’s slouching posture.  

Second portrait of a woman under Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

In 2015, French scientist Pascal Cotte claimed to have found a second portrait beneath da Vinci’s Mona Lisa using a technique called reflective light technology. 

He said the woman may have been an entirely different person to the woman that famously is depicted, or it could have been an earlier attempt at capturing the muse’s likeness.

Cotte created a digital reconstruction of what the original depicted woman looked like. She had a slimmer appearance to the famous Mona Lisa, whilst her clothes were also different. 

The Mona Lisa is believed to depict Lisa del Giocondo, an Italian noblewoman whose husband commissioned da Vinci to paint a portrait of her. 

Cotte told MailOnline at the time: ‘The one we discovered is compatible [with fashion at the time]’ and better matches descriptions of the original portrait.’ 


In 2015, French scientist Pascal Cotte claimed to have found a second portrait beneath da Vinci’s Mona Lisa using a technique called reflective light technology. He said the woman may have been an entirely different person to the woman that famously is depicted, or it could have been an earlier attempt at capturing the muse’s likeness

Mysterious figure discovered beneath Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume

Analysis of Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume, painted around 1630-1631, which the Dutch master painted in 1631, revealed a second ghostly portrait underneath in 2015.

The previously unseen painting was of a mysterious young man wrapped in a cloak.

Experts believed the figure could have been a self-portrait of the artist when he was still a young man.

Researchers used advanced imaging techniques to make the discovery. Rembrandt is believed to have turned the wooden panel featuring the original work upside down before painting over it with his more famous portrait.


Analysis of Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume, painted around 1630-1631, which the Dutch master painted in 1631, revealed a second ghostly portrait underneath in 2015. The previously unseen painting was of a mysterious young man wrapped in a cloak

Dr Karen Trentelman, senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute, said at the time: ‘Our ability to image the underlying painting has greatly benefited from recent technological advances.

‘Researchers are always limited by the tools available to them, and over the years the study of this painting – and the underlying image – has progressively advanced with the introduction of each new tool.

‘With this latest study, our scans reveal the distribution of specific chemical elements, from which we can infer the pigments used in the first composition, providing us with the most detailed image of the underlying painting to date.’

Unfinished sketch of Mary, Queen of Scots found beneath portrait of Scottish official

In 2017, conservators at the National Galleries of Scotland and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London discovered what appeared to be an unfinished portrait of Mary.

The image of the woman, which the researchers said had ‘compelling similarities’ to other depictions of the queen, was discovered after a portrait of Sir John Maitland, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland between 1586 and 1595, was x-rayed. 

The work was by Dutch portrait artist Adrian Vanson.

The researchers believed that the original portrait may have been covered over or abandoned due to the fact that Mary was executed in 1587, two years before the inscribed date on the painting. 


In 2017, conservators at the National Galleries of Scotland and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London discovered what they believed to be an unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots underneath a 16th-century painting. The image of the woman, which the researchers said had ‘compelling similarities’ to other depictions of the queen, was discovered after a portrait of Sir John Maitland, the Lord Chancellor of Scotland between 1586 and 1595, was x-rayed

Face of murdered Renaissance princess found beneath portrait of Italian heiress 

In 2014, experts discovered that a portrait that was purported to depict famed beauty Eleanor of Toledo in fact had a depiction of her daughter hidden beneath it. 

The daughter, Isabella Medici, was the favourite child of Cosimo de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Florence. 

Experts found that her strong nose, steely star and high forehead had been obscured beneath layers of paint applied by a Victorian artist to make the work more saleable in the 19th century. 


In 2014, experts discovered that a portrait that was purported to depict famed beauty Eleanor of Toledo in fact had a depiction of her daughter hidden beneath it. The daughter, Isabella Medici, was the favourite child of Cosimo de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Florence. Experts found that her strong nose, steely star and high forehead had been obscured beneath layers of paint applied by a Victorian artist to make the work more saleable in the 19th century

Ellen Baxtor, a conservator at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, had noticed that the painting purporting to depict Eleanor of Toledo had a face ‘like a cookie tin box lid’, even though her clothing was accurate. 

On the back of the work, the stamp of Francis Needham was discovered. Research revealed that Needham had worked in the National Portrait Gallery in London in the mid-1800s transferring paintings from wood panels to canvas mounts.

X-rays then revealed that the painting of Eleanor of Toledo was in fact that of her daughter. The layers of paint were removed to reveal the original. 

Isabella de’Medici is known to have been murdered after the painting was completed.  

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