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Imaging: Uncovering Degas’ hidden portrait

Scientific Reports

August 4, 2016

A ‘hidden’ portrait by the French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas is described in a study in Scientific Reports this week. Using a non-invasive technique, the authors examined a concealed painting underneath Degas’ “Portrait of a Woman”, which could provide further understanding of his work and artistic practices.

“Portrait of a woman” is known to contain a concealed figure and since 1922 the outline of the hidden portrait has been gradually emerging. However, conventional techniques have meant that that the underpainting could not be resolved as more than a faintly outlined female figure.

Using a synchrotron radiation source to perform X-ray fluorescence (XRF), Daryl Howard, David Thurrowgood and colleagues produced elemental maps of the painting, which were processed to produce a false colour representation of the hidden portrait. The authors suggest that the hidden painting is a previously unknown portrait of the model Emma Dobigny. They note that the disproportionate and blurred form of the ears in the hidden painting, are indicative of several attempts to achieve the final proportions and features. Degas is reported as having painted ‘pixie’ like ears at about this period and the maps produced allowed the authors to observe such a ‘pixie’ like ear shape, which was then reworked to a more conventional form.

The authors propose that the unfolding technological developments for examining artwork using synchrotron radiation-based techniques will significantly impact the way cultural heritage is studied for preservation and scholarly purposes.

doi: 10.1038/srep29594

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