X-ray reveals hidden Degas portrait

Australian scientists have uncovered a hidden portrait by French impressionist Edgar Degas using a pioneering scanning technique.

Researchers from Australian Synchotron working in partnership with the National Gallery of Victoria used X-ray fluorescence microscopy on Degas’ oil painting ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (c. 1876-1880). The resulting scans enabled them to produce stunning images of a painting of a woman believed to be French model Emma Dobigny underlying the final work. 

The underpainting was recreated by placing the portrait under the intense X-ray beam produced by the Synchotron machine. The scans produced a series of complex metal maps highlighting the various minerals in the paint types used by Degas. Over 33 hours, the location of different pigment mixtures in every one millimetre square pixel was measured. Finally, the data was fed into a computer to reconstruct the surface and underlying layers of paint. Synchotron scientist, Dr Daryl Howard, said this technique represents an ‘order of magnitude’ improvement in non-destructive imaging because it produces enormous 31.6 megapixel images while reducing radiation exposure which can damage paintings.

While researchers have long known the hidden portrait to exist it was impossible to reveal it without subjecting the artwork to damage. Degas is thought to have painted other portraits of Dobigny around 1869 with ‘Portrait of a Woman’ completed some seven to ten years later. The gap suggests the hidden work may have remained in Degas’ studio for a long time before he decided to paint over it. This was not an unusual practice for artists of the time but the thin layers of oil painting with which Degas overlaid Dobigny’s face meant it soon began to show through.

The discovery has generated frissons of excitement in the scientific and artistic communities. Dr Howard told BBC News that “what is really exciting is that we have now been able to add one more Degas artwork for the world to see”. Head of Conservation at the National Gallery of Victoria, Michael Varcoe-Cocks, predicted the new imaging technique could help to resolve “long-standing questions related to attribution, authenticity or simply our desire to understand the hand of a masterful artist”.

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