X-Ray Visionary

By Julia Leonardos
September 28, 2016
Alan Burroughs commissioned the Art-X, a custom-built X-ray machine, for the Fogg Museum in 1939. 

In 1923, Alan Burroughs (Harvard Class of 1920), a curator and art historian at the Minneapolis Art Institute, supervised the X-radiography of an unopened Egyptian mummy case. According to Francesca Bewer’s A Laboratory for Art: Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Emergence of Conservation in America, 1900–1950, the aim was to learn the contents of the case without disturbing it. However, what was found turned out to be less interesting to Burroughs than his method of discovery.

Soon after, Burroughs obtained permission to X-radiograph a handful of the institute’s works, but a lack of funding and equipment prevented him from continuing his intensive research. The Fogg Museum, by contrast, could offer those resources. Edward Forbes, the Fogg’s director from 1909 to 1944 and an avid promoter of scientific art conservation methods, welcomed Burroughs to the staff in the mid-1920s.

“It was a moment of huge changes in the field of conservation, and the Fogg was where it was happening,” said Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist and director of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (which Forbes founded, as the first facility of its kind, in 1928).

“Forbes put together a department led by George Stout and Rutherford John Gettens, and Burroughs was part of that group,” Khandekar said. Their contributions to the field played an integral role in the development of technical art history as a viable method of understanding art, and yielded what is now a mutually beneficial relationship between curators and conservators, art historians and scientists. “These were the people,” Khandekar said, “who laid the foundations for modern conservation as we know it.”

Though Burroughs was not the first to X-ray a painting—paintings have been examined by X-radiography practically since the technique’s invention in 1895—he was the first to systematically study X-radiographs of paintings, and his methods that he developed of understanding art are still in use today.

Burroughs’s research took him across the globe: he traveled through Europe in the mid-1920s with a Picker X-ray unit, documenting firmly attributed paintings to serve as standards for future authentications. He was able to identify commonalities in technique among the same artists, or among artists in associated schools and workshops. He could also find evidence for specific relationships between painters, such as similarities in craft between an artist and her mentors and students. Using X-rays, he was able to pinpoint additions, tampering, or damage to individual objects that might otherwise not be apparent to the naked eye.

In 1939, Burroughs commissioned a new X-ray machine for the Fogg: a shock-proof, 60-pound, portable Art-X unit from the Massachusetts-based Campbell X-ray Corporation. The unit was custom-built for Burroughs over the course of three years, though it took an additional year to finalize the design (specifically, the size and shape of the cone from which the X-rays are emitted). The Art-X remained in use at the Fogg until 1971, and it is still at the Straus Center, displayed along with the Forbes Pigment Collection. (Visitors can glimpse it through the glass walls on Level 4 of the Harvard Art Museums.) It’s just one of the Straus Center’s many historical conservation tools. “We never throw anything out,” Khandekar said, smiling.

Many—if not all—of the art conservation methods Burroughs pioneered are still widely practiced. X-radiography is now standard, and has helped conservators make important discoveries about pigments, artists’ techniques, and even hidden works. X-rays of Van Gogh’s Three Pairs of Shoes, for instance, revealed a completely different, earlier painting beneath the surface, broadening art historians’ understanding of the object.

Today, Burroughs’s research aspirations have been assumed by the Straus Center. “Burroughs was keen on creating an X-ray library,” Khandekar said. “We have been working on a long-term project, scanning all the X-rays that we have—about 5,400 total. Soon, we hope to make these X-rays digitally available to students, scholars, and the general public.”


Julia Leonardos served as the Summer 2016 writing and editing intern in the Communications Division at the Harvard Art Museums.

  • of
  • of