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Recent advances in technology applied in the art world have unveiled mysteries, exposed forgeries and allowed the discovery of lost masterpieces.

Imaging techniques such as infrared reflectography, UV fluorescence photography and X-ray imaging are able to reveal “invisible” layers and provide valuable insights into the history, materials and techniques used by an artist. These can provide essential clues to the attribution of an art work to a specific artist, or to narrow down a time frame, and allow a thorough evaluation of the state of conservation. 

For Mme. Manuela de Kerchove d'Ousselghem, the search for unaccounted artworks by the Belgian artist René Guiette (1893-1976) led her to SGS Art Services, for a technical examination of one of the paintings from her private collection.

Mme. de Kerchove is Guiette’s granddaughter, and for some time has been gathering information and studying his life and work, by starting with her family’s private collection. From her research emerged the catalogue raisonné of the artist, which was published in 1991 by Fonds Mercator, Anvers, Belgium. She continues to expand her work, searching for her grandfather’s paintings scattered all over the world, through archival research of his documents and photographs, thereby building a comprehensive database of his life’s work.

Paint Loss Points the Way

The painting “Paysage”, from 1953, was taken for close examination to evaluate the possible existence of an underlying composition as paint losses along the edges were inconsistent with the colors at the surface.

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Above: On the left: ‘Paysage’ by René Guiette, 1953; on the right, top and bottom are highlighted details of the paint losses that revealed bright colors contrasting with the existing composition.

Technical Examination

The technical examination included high resolution photography under visible incident and raking light as well as ultraviolet light. Observation and macrophotography under stereomicroscope enabled a more accurate evaluation of the paint losses and the stratigraphy of the paint layers. With this information it was possible to determine the existence of an intermediate ground layer – a very strong indication that something was lying beneath the surface.

For an assessment of any potential underlying compositions or preparatory drawings, infrared reflectography was used and digital X-ray images were made. Just as when an x-ray is performed for medical purposes, the same principles apply to every object. Lighter elements appear darker and heavier elements appear whiter. This means that pigments composed of heavier elements, like lead white for example, will be “visible” under lighter elements, such as carbon- or iron-based pigments (carbon black or ochres), in an x-ray image.

A New Image Emerges

Amazingly, a whole new painting emerged for the first time, after almost 70 years. The underlying composition, identified with digital x-ray imaging, had a landscape orientation, quite unlike the surface painting. Two human figures fill the major part of the underlying area, with one standing on the left hand side and the other lying on the bottom of the composition.

Both compositions bear very distinct techniques and compositional styles. The earlier painting layers appear to be thin brush applications with a smooth surface in bright contrasting colors, whereas the later composition has a strong texture created by the application of a sand paste, with red and black being the dominant colors.

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Above: On the left: visible light photograph of “Paysage” by René Guiette, 1953; on the right: x-ray image of the same painting.

X-ray microfluorescence (XRF) is a very useful technique that enabled the identification of the different materials used by Guiette in both compositions. In “Paysage”, carbon black, cadmium red, red ochre and umber are the main pigments that the artist relied on. However, in the earlier composition, zinc white, presumably Prussian blue, cobalt-based blue, chrome-based yellow, cadmium red and umber are the pigments responsible for the bright contrasting colors seen where the existing paint has been lost.

Photographic Evidence

During Mme. de Kerchove’s archival research, a photograph of the artist with a partial view of the underlying painting was found. Comparison with the X-ray image has allowed a reconstruction to be made of the missing section from the photograph. With the confirmation that both compositions are by René Guiette, it is believed that the artist himself applied a new ground layer over the initial painting in order to prepare it for the composition made in 1953.

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Above: Left: a photograph of the artist René Guiette, with a partial view of the painting. Right: a digital X-ray image, in landscape orientation, with highlighted features from the underlying painting in red, for the features also visible above left; and in green, for new features discovered.

Although the X-ray image provided a few clues as to what the overall composition would have looked like, there is no technology presently available that would enable us to separate these two paintings. However, would Guiette have wanted that to happen? For whatever reason, he chose to cover the previous painting. So even if we could separate the two works, the question would be: should we?

For the time being, we can at least rejoice in the unveiling of this lost painting and only wonder what others may still be hidden elsewhere.

About the Artist

René Guiette (1893-1976), painter, illustrator and art critic was born and raised in Anvers (Antwerp), Belgium. After choosing to pursue art in his early life, Guiette studied and worked in a number of styles, from esotericism, expressionism and cubism to Picasso’s post-cubism. For a time he also illustrated for poets. Recognized for his talents during his lifetime, Guiette was made a member of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in 1948. Today, Guiette’s work can be seen at galleries and museums including Paris’s Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts d’Anvers, and Brazil’s Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paolo.

About the René Guiette Archives

For almost 40 years, Manuela de Kerchove d'Ousselghem has been researching and cataloguing the work of René Guiette, her grandfather. Drawing on a wide range of materials, books, correspondence, Manuela has built a detailed picture of Guiette and in 1991 published the first catalog raisonné, including 3,000 works by the artist. To realize this first publication, Manuela became immersed in the life of the artist and, following his death in 1976, met his friends and acquaintances, his close and distant family, as well as his students. Since 1991, research and contributions to the catalogue have continued, increasing understanding of the artist’s career, influences and legacy.

As the artist’s granddaughter, Manuela has been able to refer to his personal archives to gain a privileged insight into the life and work of René Guiette.

SGS Art Services

SGS is the only art service provider in its category to maintain a global presence, including a dedicated laboratory in the Geneva Freeport. SGS has developed a unique system to monitor the condition of artworks globally, based on an international network of accredited art conservators, proprietary software and rigorous museum level procedures.

For further information contact:

Stephanie Meyer-Pionchon
Global Marketing Manager, Art Services
t: +33 4 42 61 64 46

About SGS

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