Dating the wood from historical art objects is a crucial step to ascertain their production time, and support or refute attribution to an artist or a workshop. Dendrochronology is commonly used for this purpose but requires access to the tree-ring pattern in the wood, which can be hindered by preparatory layers, polychromy, wax, or integrated frames. Here we implemented non-invasive dendrochronology based on X-ray computed tomography (CT) to examine a painting on panel attributed to Rubens’ studio and its presumed dating around 1636 CE. The CT images achieved a resolution of 37.3 micron and revealed a double panelling, which was concealed by oak strips covering all four edges. The back (visible) board is made of deciduous oak (Quercus subg. Quercus), the most common type of wood used in 17th-century Netherlandish workshops, and was dated terminus post quem after 1557 CE. However, the front (original) board used for the painting has been identified through examination of the wood anatomy as a tropical wood, probably Swietenia sp., a species seldom used in Netherlandish paintings, and remains undated. Its very presence attests the global character of 17th-century trade, and demonstrates the use of exotic species in Flemish studios. The date of the oak board refutes previous results and suggests that this board was trimmed to meet the size of the tropical one, having been glued to it for conservation purposes or with deceiving intentions to pretend that the painting was made on an oak panel. These revelations have opened new lines of art historical inquiry and highlight the potential of X-ray CT as a powerful tool for non-invasive study of historical art objects to retrieve their full history.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam , DendroResearch, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Real-Time 3D Tomography , CT for Art: from Images to Patterns
Computational Imaging

Domínguez-Delmás, M., Bossema, F., Dorscheid, J., Coban, S., Hall-Aquitania, M., Batenburg, J., & Hermens, E. (2021). X-ray computed tomography for non-invasive dendrochronology reveals a concealed double panelling on a painting from Rubens’ studio. PLoS ONE, 16(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0255792