Secrets Found By X-Raying Old Paintings

The Da Vinci Code got one thing right: there are secret images hidden beneath paintings all around the world. They're less about global conspiracies and long-lost Biblical secrets and more about first drafts or reusing canvasses, but there are many secret paintings or even hidden messages beneath famous works. Discovered by X-ray or infrared technology, these secret paintings show you more about an artist's process or clue you in to something that was deliberately hidden to make way for something else.

Even if the secrets of the Illuminati or a secret self-portrait of the artist aren't hidden inside your favorite da Vinci painting, there's still plenty of interesting stuff to be found there. X-rayed images of old paintings reveal sketches, alternative paintings, and keys to how an artist works, making them fascinating glimpses at how some of history's most celebrated artists create. While the public may never know the reasons that some of the original paintings were abandoned, examining how these amazing pieces of artwork look on the surface and beneath paints an incredible picture of each artist.

  • Rembrandt's 'An Old Man In Military Costume' Disguises A Younger Man

    Rembrandt's 'An Old Man In Military Costume' Disguises A Younger Man
    Photo: Rembrandt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Rembrandt's "An Old Man In Military Costume," is a beautiful, detailed work showcasing exactly what the title says - an old man in a military costume. But researchers discovered something interesting about the painting in 1968 with X-rays: a painting of a young man hidden beneath the titular old one. As technology has improved, the image of the young man has become clearer, revealing a man with a pink complexion and a green coat.

    Experts considered whether the underlying image was painted by a different artist, but ultimately concluded that Rembrandt was likely the creator of both images. He had a habit of reusing canvases.

  • Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' Has A Hidden Message Written By The Artist

    Art historians have long known that Edvard Munch's 1893 expressionist painting The Scream (one of four versions of the artwork he painted) has a barely visible inscription in pencil on the top left corner. In Norwegian, it reads "Kan kun være malet af en gal mand"; in English, that translates to "Can only have been painted by a madman." Experts initially thought that it had likely been added by a viewer who vandalized the painting. But in 2020, curators at Norway's National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design who had been restoring the painting announced that Munch himself wrote the line.

    They used infrared technology to analyze the handwriting and compared it to Munch's other writings at the time. "The handwriting itself, as well as events that happened in 1895, when Munch showed the painting in Norway for the first time, all point in the same direction," said museum curator Mai Britt Guleng. A vandal likely would have written the statement much bigger, Guleng added.

    When the painting was first shown in Norway, critics and others questioned Munch's mental state, which insulted him and might have led him to add the penciled message in response. 

  • Picasso's 'The Old Guitarist' Covers Up Two Hidden Paintings

    Picasso's 'The Old Guitarist' Covers Up Two Hidden Paintings
    Photo: Picasso / Wikipedia / Public Domain

    Pablo Picasso's "The Old Guitarist" contains not one, but two images beneath the one viewers see. The top painting depicts an old man, his body at odd angles, playing the guitar. Even before X-ray analysis, it's possible to see a second face looking to the left in the man's neck area. When the image is scanned, that face appears to belong to a young mother with a child by her side. Additional examination revealed a third image of an old woman in the painting, as well as an image of an animal head that may be part of one of the first two paintings, or evidence of another.

  • Degas's 'Portrait of a Woman' Was Originally The Portrait Of A Different Woman

    Edgar Degas's "Portrait of a Woman" didn't actually require X-ray imaging to show the hidden portrait beneath. Because Degas used such thin layers of paint, the original painting actually began to show through on its own. It appears to be a portrait of a famous model of the era named Emma Dobigny.

    When experts X-rayed the painting in 2016, the portrait could be seen with such detail that researchers were able to recreate it in color, demonstrating that it was no mere sketch, but rather a near-complete painting. The restoration in itself is a unique work of art that blends scientific analysis of color and paint with Degas's artistry.

  • Van Gogh's 'Patch of Grass' Is Painted Over A Woman's Face

    Vincent van Gogh's "Patch of Grass" is a deceptively simple painting. What appears to be a colorful picture of a field actually covers the portrait of a peasant woman, painted over by the artist for unknown reasons. Advanced technology allowed researchers to not only reveal the hidden image, but to reproduce it in color. They theorize that he crafted the portrait sometime during 1884-1885, when he was living in the Dutch village of Nuenen.

    Van Gogh frequently painted over his canvases. Art experts estimate that approximately a third of his early paintings contain hidden images.

  • Bazille's 'Ruth and Boaz' Hides A Famous Lost Painting

    Bazille's 'Ruth and Boaz' Hides A Famous Lost Painting
    Photo: Frédéric Bazille / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Unfortunately, some of history's greatest art is lost to time. Many people thought that was the case with Frédéric Bazille's "Young Woman at the Piano," a painting the artist had written about, but that had never been seen. However, by X-raying "Ruth and Boaz," researchers found evidence that "Young Woman at the Piano" was underneath.

    This isn't Bazille's only hidden painting, either - the same researchers discovered many other hidden works in his finished paintings using the same techniques.