X-rays reveal hidden Degas portrait

Portrait of a Woman by Edgar Degas (L) and hidden image (R)Image copyright
National Gallery of Victoria/Aust Synchrotron

Image caption

Degas’ Portrait of a Woman (left) covered another painting (right)

A hidden portrait by the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas has been revealed by scientists.

Researchers in Australia used powerful X-rays to bring to light the painting of a young woman concealed beneath a work called Portrait of a Woman.

The researchers believe the subject is Emma Dobigny, who appeared in other Degas paintings.

The findings are described in the journal Scientific Reports.

Dr Daryl Howard, a co-author of the study, told BBC News: “I think what is really exciting is that we have now been able to add one more Degas artwork for the world to see.”

Image copyright
National Gallery of Victoria

Image caption

The underlying image, which is upside down, appears as a stain on the woman’s right cheek

It had long been known that Degas’ portrait of a woman wearing a black bonnet and dress, which he painted in the late 1870s, covered an earlier painting.

A ghostly impression of the composition appears as a dark stain on the sitter’s face, and over the years has become more prominent as the oil paint thinned.

Conventional X-rays revealed the outline of another image was lurking beneath, but without scraping away the outer painting, the researchers required a much more powerful technique to show any detail.

Image copyright
National Gallery of Victoria

Image caption

Conventional X-rays confirmed there was an underlying painting but revealed little detail

For that, they used the Australian Synchrotron, a huge accelerator that generates more powerful X-rays, to peer beneath the top layers of paint.

They were able to detect the metallic elements in the pigments that Degas had used in his underlying artwork.

Dr Howard, from the Australian Synchrotron, said: “Each element has its own unique signature, and so that gets collected.

“And what we do is analyse that data and build up these ‘elemental maps’. And that allows us to image all the different pigments used in the panting.”

Through this they were able to see in colour and in remarkable detail Degas’ hidden work: a portrait of a woman with auburn hair.

Unfinished, it shows how the artist made several attempts to rework her features.

Image copyright
Australian synchrotron/NGV

Image caption

The powerful X-rays of the Australian Synchrotron probed beneath the top layers of paint to reveal this

But the scientists said it was clear enough to try to work out who the subject was.

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