Using X-Ray Imaging Technology to Analyze Paintings

Wolfgang Beltracchi is perhaps the biggest art forger in history, who painted and sold his own reproductions of works by Fernand Léger, Max Ernst, and even Pablo Picasso and duped the most revered art experts. If people have heard about Beltracchi, they might find the following account of events familiar.

The Great Masters Art Foundation sought out Teledyne ICM in early December 2017, looking for a portable X-ray generator to radiograph an Italian painting belonging to the 16th century, as the authenticity of this old piece was questioned.

Green pigments dating from the 1930s were found on the so-called 16th century painting and were similar to Beltracchi’s titanium white paint (the cause of his ultimate imprisonment). The canvas Saint Jerome, which was attributed to Parmigianino or his circle, was valued at approximately $850,000. But, this canvas was on the verge of becoming a fake.

Using Scientific Tools to Study Paintings

The dubious pigments were not in direct contact with this canvas, which means this specific color may have been added much later, for example, during a restoration. In order to settle the case and establish the painting’s authenticity, Britain’s world-renowned auction house Sotheby’s hired a leading expert, Dr. Maurizio Seracini, to examine the painting with all the scientific equipment available to finally determine the exact nature of the masterpiece.

Professor Seracini and his team adjusting the masterpiece before inspection

Professor Seracini and his team adjusting the masterpiece before inspection

For quite some time, X-ray has been a recurring method for studying painting and artifacts. This electromagnetic wave, with its penetrating power, can easily go through a majority of materials that made out ancient masterpieces and artifacts (rock, wood, bones, metal, and fabric). This beam of light is similar to an X-ray at the hospital or dentist and captures details which cannot be seen by the human eye.

As soon as the X-ray beam passes through an object, it produces a shadow of what is within the object onto a receiving medium, for example, a digital detector or a silver film. Using science and technology, experts and historians can expose the secrets that are finely concealed under visible light. This makes X-ray analysis an important tool for many professionals.

Professor Seracini stated that X-ray analysis should be the first step when it comes to inspecting the works of old masters. Due to the power of X-rays, a well-trained eye can inspect all the cracks as well as layers of nearly all paintings and accurately ascertain its origin.

X-ray Imaging Technology

The team of experts, headed by Professor Seracini, ultimately used a Go-Scan digital detector and a CP225D constant potential X-ray generator to analyze the painting. Using the 25-µm D-4 films and the CP225D constant potential X-ray generator, Professor Seracini, started to shoot each part of the painting so as to capture an X-ray image of the whole work of art.

At 4.5 mA and 40 kV, the level of radiation was as low as a dental X-ray. Customized for such subtle applications, this specific setting enables the X-rays to penetrate the canvas fabric such that every little detail, which cannot be seen by the naked eye, becomes extremely clear under X-rays. The X-ray exposure section was completed within a matter of minutes and all that remained was the developing part of the process.

X-ray image of St-Jerome by Parmigianino

X-ray image of St-Jerome by Parmigianino

Using the combination of an CP225D X-ray generator and a Go-Scan digital panel, Professor Seracini and his group, were looking forward to testing the efficiency of such an innovative imaging method. Once the portable digital X-ray detector was installed, a sharp and clear image of the face and beard of the old man depicted on the canvas emerged on the connected tablet’s touchscreen—all within a fraction of seconds. Every brush stroke, paint spot, and crack, earlier invisible to the naked eye, became crystal-clear.


Professor Seracini and his team, however, did not share their conclusions because the expert opinion sought by Sotheby’s was highly sensitive. Yet, the application of Teledyne ICM’s ground-breaking X-ray technology on such a fragile piece of art definitely underscores the ability and expertise of these solutions for non-destructive imaging.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Teledyne DALSA.

For more information on this source, please visit Teledyne DALSA.

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