Revealing Hidden Master Strokes
Degas, The Rehearsal, © Harvard Art Museum (used with permission)                                  NASA, Pinwheel Galaxy

Is the X-ray image a thing of beauty? Visual representations of X-rays are imbued with infinite shades of grey, ghostly traces and haunted lines, perhaps inviting one to view them as objects of art instead of ones of science. Focusing on the variations of X-rays in shade or value may permit audiences to drift into contemplation, but these slight formal variations can have enormously complex implications.

Conservators work tirelessly at the intersection of fine art practice, archival research and chemical analysis, using X-ray technology to interrupt the narratives that define their field. Often in their investigations, they aim X-rays at a well-known painting, creating new images with the potential to shatter an original's value, if it is a forgery, or settle raging disputes about its fabricator's technique.

Through an inverse use of X-ray technology where high energies are captured rather than created anew, astrophysicists use X-rays to reveal the debris from exploded stars, invisible material swirling around black holes and other violent phenomena from deepest space.

Because X-radiation is a more energetic type of light than can be detected by the human eye, these artists actually create new sight lines, new ways of seeing this world and worlds we have yet to know.

"X-rays from the cosmos allow scientists to investigate extreme domains invisible to the most powerful optical telescopes, regions where matter has been heated to millions of degrees near black holes and neutron stars, supernova shock waves, and galactic explosions." -Wallace Tucker, astrophysicist from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.

"It's a question of scale. If a painting is your universe, X-rays might show you how it evolved, revealing unseen underlying compositions. They can reveal the distribution of heavier elements (like lead, as in lead white, or mercury, as in vermilion) across its surface. They can show you details about its construction: the pattern of the wood, the weave of the canvas, the presence of losses. X-rays can highlight characteristic brushwork or expose anomalies." - Teri Hensick, painting conservator at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies in Cambridge, Mass.

This project provides an opportunity to explore the research processes used by art conservators and astrophysicists. The methods utilized by both fields require rigorous, often exploratory, investigation and attention to aesthetic details.

  View the collection  by slideshow, or  by comparison.


Light can take on many forms. Radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma radiation are all different forms of light. Very high temperatures (millions of degrees Celsius) produce X-rays.

About the Project

Kimberly Arcand is the Multimedia Production Coordinator for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, directing a full range of science outreach products and activities. She is principal investigator for the "From Earth to the Universe" (FETTU) astronomical exhibition project occurring in over 850 locations worldwide.

Micah Salkind is a Providence Rhode Island-based writer, DJ and sound designer. Formerly the Director of Public Programs/Festival Coordinator at The Providence Black Repertory Company, Salkind is pursuing a Masters in Public Humanities at Brown University.

Montana Blanco is a candidate for the Master's in Public Humanities at Brown University. He works at the intersection of Africana Studies, Fashion Theory, and Set Design.

Craig Dermody is an artist and curator currently based in Providence, RI.

Special thanks to Teri Hensick (conservator of paintings at the Harvard Art Museum's Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies) for her support and generosity.

Graphic Designer:
Melissa Weiss, CXC

Web Developer:
Khajag Mgrdichian, CXC

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