The Devil in the Details: New Technology Reveals Hidden Art within Masterpieces

Technology, such as particle accelerators, are used to examine small details hidden in paintings. A particle accelerator is a machine that has the capability of accelerating particles through electromagnetic waves, such as X-rays. The paintings from artists such as Picasso, Da Vinci, and Degas were scanned by an X-ray beam radiating from a particle accelerator specifically called synchrotrons, and details never seen before were revealed. The X-ray beam coming from the accelerator is called an X-ray fluorescence beam or XRF. Using XRF made it possible for art historians to determine different styles displayed by various artists, as well as hidden figures located in the canvas.

  1. Edgar Degas’ Portrait of a Woman

The original portrait is currently in the National Gallery of Victoria, which is located in Australia. Researchers in the Australian Synchrotron, a facility used to experiment with light sources from accelerators and more, used XRF to penetrate through the paint, and successfully discovered the types of paint Degas used, as well as a hidden portrait that belonged to an unknown woman. The hidden portrait took 33 hours to find because each pixel was examined before an analysis was made that the woman being examined was not the same.


A particle accelerator is used to scan Degas’ “Portrait of a Woman”
  1.  Pablo Picasso’s La Miséreuse Accroupie

The painting scanned using X-ray fluorescence beams was created during Picasso’s blue period in 1902 and currently can be found in the Art Gallery of Ontario. The National Art Gallery decided to do several trials in which the work of art would be examined under XRF beams. The details revealed included the exact pigments Picasso used, the mistakes he made, and a hidden landscape in the midst of the painting. The discovery of a landscape caused many to question if Picasso was the artist of this piece or Joaquin Torres-Garcia. However, many art historians still believe Picasso created the piece since he frequently reused canvas.


  1. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

In 2010, a team of researchers used XRF to see the technique used by Leonardo Da Vinci. After using the particle accelerator, the technique revealed was sfumato, which occurs when tones and colors shade into one another. The technology also revealed every paint and pigment used in the Mona Lisa.

  1. Arthur Streeton’s Self-Portrait

Arthur Streeton’s self-portrait was also examined through XRF; however, a different technique was used with a Maia scanner, also known as a Maia detector. Even though the Maia detector also uses x-ray fluorescence beams, it performs more efficient techniques. For example, it scans the masterpiece from corner to corner, instead of cross-sections, which provides a clearer image. This technique also works faster than XRF since it examines the painting in 22 hours instead of 32 hours. The Maia detector revealed Streeton’s brushstrokes and outline before he painted his portrait. It was invented around 2012, and it currently is being used more constantly by researchers to scan painting.

The pros of using particle accelerators include preserving the integrity of the painting; however, the con is that the XRF technology will not work correctly if the painting contains lead or mercury. If the piece contains either or the two elements, the images will be discontented. The method of XRF works efficiently is scanning a painting with a composition of zinc or chromium. In conclusion, the discovery of hidden details and techniques through technology has contributed greatly to art history. The discoveries show the inspiration of artists across history, as well as the intricate pigments and colors they had in their masterpieces.

Landscape hidden in Picasso’s “La Miséreuse Accroupie.”

Works Cited

Chang, Kenneth. “In Picassos Blue Period, Scanners Find Secrets He Painted Over.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2018, <>

Deborah Lau Research Program Leader, Surfaces and Nanosciences, CSIRO. “Streeton, Da Vinci and the science of seeing art’s secrets.” The Conversation, 27 Feb. 2018, <>

Howard, Daryl. “How We Used a Particle Accelerator to Find the Hidden Face in Degas’s Portrait of a Woman.” The Conversation, 27 Feb. 2018, <>

“Lost Artwork Found Under Famous Picasso Painting.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 17 Feb. 2018, <>

Yin, Steph. “Finding Degas’s Lost Portrait With a Particle Accelerator.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Aug. 2016, <®ion=Marginalia&pgtype=article.>



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