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Van Gogh shows his true colours…

Sometimes, my job is like an episode of CSI: I can solve mysteries about a work of art with the help of evidence I find in the lab. A few months ago, researchers from the Van Gogh Museum came to me and requested that I examine a small painting of a seated nude girl using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). Van Gogh produced this painting in Paris in the spring of 1886, at the studio of his teacher Fernand Cormon. He painted it on a small canvas that he had previously used for a flower still life, as we know from examining an X-ray photograph of the piece. The photograph is difficult to interpret, but we can make out a bouquet of flowers in a tall vase. X-ray photographs are always black and white, however. I knew that the XRF technique would not only produce a sharper image, but also tell us the colours of the concealed flower still life.

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